Things are bizarrely subdued on the hill. Planting trees and then walking with a friend across the moss yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t heard a single curlew calling during the course of a two hour visit. This is absolutely unprecedented, and I would have expected curlews to be well on their way towards breeding by now. First clutches are usually laid towards the end of April, and there is an awful lot of noisy business to transact before this date, but it seems like the bulk of my birds are still to return from their winter quarters.
There was only a single male curlew displaying at 5:30am on Sunday morning, but his undulating flight was performed high up over the moss and seemed to lack the direction or focus of bird who really meant business. In time, he drifted away on the wind and I heard no more from him. Looking back at my notes from previous years, I see that displays were almost constant from dawn to dusk on April 11th 2016, and I even noted displays during the night in the first week of April 2013 and 2014.
The fatalist in me feels certain that it’s all over for “my” curlews; they’ve failed so often that they’ve finally given up. This would be a devastating blow, and it isn’t without precedent – some weird things have been happening on the hill for the past two or three years to suggest that the end is approaching for “my” birds (see countless articles on this blog for more detail). More realistically, the loyal old waders are simply being held up by cold, dry conditions and they will soon be up and running on their usual stances.
In almost ten years work on the Chayne, I’ve never known “my” curlews to successfully complete incubation on a first clutch. They are always robbed and destroyed, often before the clutch is even completely laid, and this is partly because the nests are formed before the vegetation is tall enough to hide them. I’ve often wondered why the birds try and nest before the rushes are sufficiently advanced, since this seems to be a fundamental factor in nesting failure. Success rates are only fractionally improved by second (or even third!) clutches which are laid in late May or early June, by which time the grass and rushes are tall enough to provide some cover for incubating birds. Unfortunately, there are downsides to laying late which usually cancel out the advantages, including the collapse of social structure in a community of nesting birds which is unsettling and full of distraction. It will be interesting to see what effect (if any) this late arrival will have on the returning birds’ success rates.
I am comforted by the fact that the entire hill is lagging behind previous years. Despite a strong start from the snipe, I’ve heard no drumming in a fortnight, and the skylarks are also proving reluctant to “get stuck in”. There was a cold wind yesterday afternoon which had shrivelled up the cotton grass flowers, and the grass was still far from green. The only real signs of life came from a flock of almost a hundred golden plover twisting and turning on the distant horizon towards Moniaive. Pairs or trios of these birds often appear on the high ground during the breeding season as if they are scoping us out, but they never even try to nest. Unlike the curlews, they seem to know a hopeless spot when they see one.