Country & Coast: Curlews

The vast acreage of slimy mud left exposed by low tides at Spurn is like an enormous bird table for curlews and other waders, their supply of food replenished not by a caring householder but by the eddying waters of the Humber and North Sea.

On a visit to the area known as Cherry Cobb Sands south of the village of Keyingham I counted almost 1,000 curlews before giving up and saw what looked like a similar number further east towards Sunk Island. On another day, observations suggest, over 5,000 curlews could have been present along this one stretch of the Humber’s north bank.

I can see why the area is so attractive to them. Those characteristic long curved bills are perfect for pulling lugworms out of the tidal mud, and also for catching the multitude of small blennies left marooned in puddles and stripping rocks of algae like ulva lactuca.

You would think this twice daily all-you-can-eat buffet would be quite sufficient to keep them on the Humber for 12 months of the year, but that’s not the case. In the next few weeks these curlews will start to develop itchy wings.

Their problem is that while they may be gregarious feeders, they don’t nest in colonies but require large open spaces in the breeding season. Which is why the bubbling trill of curlews on the wing is the evocative sound of spring and summer in the Pennines and Yorkshire Dales.

They follow rivers upstream from the Humber estuary: the Ouse, Aire, Wharfe, Nidd, Ure and Swale into the Dales; the Don, Calder and their tributaries onto the high Pennines; the River Derwent onto the North York Moors and even, for a few pairs, to the chalk downland on the western side of the Yorkshire Wolds. Family groups may well return each year to the same patch of moorland, upland pasture or field.

The collective noun for curlews is ‘herd’ - which perfectly describes how large numbers of them look when standing on tidal mudflats - and I have become accustomed to seeing a herd of curlews each February in a particular field opposite the sharp bend between Burley-in-Wharfedale and Ben Rhydding as they make their way from the Humber to some of the remotest parts of Yorkshire.

In the drumlin country north of Penyghent they will meet their Lancashire cousins who have followed the Ribble up from the Irish Sea.

My earliest date for the Wharfedale curlews is February 12, back in 2006, but last year it took until the first week of March for them to show.

Golden plovers, lapwings, redshanks and oystercatchers are also making their annual journey inland. Already a flock of around 100 golden plovers has been spotted at Silsden in Airedale, and I heard the distinctive piping of oystercatchers near Bolton Abbey in the last week of January. Whilst weather and plant life are still largely gripped by winter, it is heartening to know that the spring movement of birds is already underway.