It was with considerable pleasure and relief that I happened to come across a pair of curlew chicks up on the inbye last night in the setting sun. As I walked up to the gate at the top of the field, a gaggle of clipped yeld ewes ran wildly off in front of me, following the contour round and alongside a saw-tooth dyke. As they ran, a curlew began to chip with irritation infront of them, fluttering up and round into the faces of the running sheep and obviously trying to keep them off a particular spot. She hadn’t seen me, so I crept up, trying to peer through the drifts of ragged robin and buttercups with my binoculars. All of a sudden she rose in a panic, flying round and round my head and calling angrily. Five feet away, a tiny chick was crouching in the rushes.
Unlike many of the photographs available online of curlew chicks, this tiny little bird was purplish grey, with a creamy breast and charcoal grey zig-zag patterns on its back. It watched me with one huge, liquid black eye and began to whine. The sound was a miniature, more grating version of an adult curlew’s contact call, and it took me a couple of seconds to register that it was coming from the ball of fuzz at my feet. A few yards away, another chick was staring straight up at me over its short grey beak, and I began to retreat as the adult curlew landed on the dyke a hundred yards away and continued to yammer on. For the first time in several weeks I didn’t have my camera with me. Cursing, I crept away as quietly as I could, feeling as though I had just intruded on some grave secret.
I have never seen curlew chicks this young before, although I’m sure that I’ve been within feet of them dozens of times. They really must only be four or five days old, and my notes tell me that these birds suddenly became obvious again after what seemed to be an extended absence on the 24th – five days before I found the chicks. This is very late for curlew chicks, and obviously suggests a second clutch which was laid at the end of May. They stand a much better chance of success now that the grass is higher and they have more protection from aerial predators than they did when they first sat at the start of May, but knowing how finely balanced many of these breeding cycles can be, I am worried that it is getting too late for the birds to make the best of the year. Curlew chicks fledge after six weeks, so at this rate they won’t be leaving until the middle of August.
All the time I was looking I only saw a single adult bird, and I can dimly recall reading somewhere that curlews split their broods between male and female. This may mean that the other adult was nearby with other chicks, but I would have thought that it would rise up and mob an intruder with its mate if it heard calling and commotion. As the chicks start to grow up, one of the adults (often the female, apparently) will leave the family and go down to the coast, presumably to reduce pressure on the communal food supply. I remember seeing a very vocal bird calling well into August last year, and this would explain why it was still lingering around on the tops long after all the others had gone.
There is another pair of curlews which appears to have hatched something off successfully on the back end of the farm, so despite losing the nest I found in May, we have avoided a total whitewash. That said, the hard work is still to come.