Girton Birdwatch - August 2007
The rain and storms of June and early July (I hope it's just early July!) have put paid to my intention to go in search of one of the region's most strange-looking and elusive birds: the stone-curlew. It's a long time since this bird was seen in Cambridgeshire (or probably more accurately since it bred here) although I'm reliably informed that it can be found in the Ickleton area. However it does breed in the Brecklands of Suffolk and Norfolk, rewarding areas for a visit if you're interested in birds and heath land wildlife generally. There are only about 250 breeding pairs of stone-curlews in the UK, with Breckland accounting for about 40% of them, making it one of our most scarce breeding birds.
The stone curlew is the only species in Europe of the 'thick-knee' family of wading birds but, despite its long legs, it generally steers clear of wet places (although occasionally turning up on sea-shores or marshes) and prefers sandy heaths, chalk downs and open fields with liberal scatterings of flints and stones. Despite its name it is not a member of the curlew family but is as closely related to gulls as it is to wading birds. It's quite a large bird - 17in, 43cm - with a short bill, large head and relatively thick yellow legs. It's a pale buff colour, streaked with brown and with very prominent wing bars. Perhaps its most distinctive feature is its wide, large, glaring yellow eyes. In Norfolk vernacular it was called the 'goggle-eyed plover', while the Nethersole-Thompsons referred to it as having 'the coldest and cruel-looking straw-yellow eyes'. It is gregarious and likes to nest out in the open on stony ground. So an easy bird to spot then? I've never seen a stone curlew in this country but have seen them in Spain, most recently in the Bocquer Valley near Porto Pollensa in Mallorca. The Bocquer is probably the most famous place name in Mallorcan bird watching. The valley channels birds arriving from the north-east between two high escarpments so that not only is the area at its entrance a major collecting point for small migrants, but resident and visiting raptors (black, griffon and Egyptian vultures among them) are regularly to be seen drifting along its tops. Inside, the valley is characterised by dry, rocky, scrubland, with large open areas where the vegetation is kept closely cropped by innumerable voracious goats. It is here that nesting stone curlews, both resident and summer breeding visitors, are to be seen. Or not! On my last visit I was invited to view a nesting bird through a holidaying birder's telescope. I was tempted, such was my embarrassment, to lie and say how much I appreciated the fine view presented of such a rare bird. I couldn't see a thing. I persevered and eventually was able to distinguish the bird, which filled the frame, from its surrounding sand and stones. Then, of course, it was hard to understand why it had taken so long to spot! However my difficulty underlines the fact that these birds, despite their size and distinctiveness, and penchant for wide open spaces, rely upon their almost perfect camouflage for their safety whilst nesting. Unfortunately the downside is that birds, nests and eggs, may be too successfully camouflaged and fall victim to agricultural machinery.
The stone curlew is another bird which enjoys, or enjoyed, a close relationship with the rabbit, the feeding habits of which produced ideal conditions for the nesting birds, creating problems when rabbit populations fell. Similarly, stone curlew numbers in Cambridgeshire were once very healthy as the previous prevalence of sheep farming, now in steep decline, provided the short-cropped heath lands appreciated by the birds. However, it is heartening to be able to pay tribute to the important role played by farmers and landowners in Breckland in improving the fortunes of the stone curlew in the region. Until the early part of the 20th century, the Brecklands were mostly heath land and grassland, the normal breeding habitat for the bird, but most of this has since been replaced by pine plantations and arable crops. Breckland has the lowest rainfall in Britain and this, together with very light, free-draining sandy and chalky soils, makes it ideal for vegetable crops and sugar beet. These crops are sown in the spring which means many fields are open and stony just at the time when stone curlews arrive to establish nests. Fortunately farmers/landowners have combined with English Nature and the RSPB to carefully monitor and protect nest sites amongst the crops and preserve them from any damaging agricultural operations. The result, to quote English Nature, is that 'the population (of this special bird) has almost doubled in the last 10 years as a result of sympathetic land management'.
Several hobbies have been seen around the village recently. I've written about this attractive little falcon in the past but learned something new about it when reading an article by Stephen Moss a few weeks ago. The hobby's scientific name is 'Falco subbuteo' and yes, it does have a link with the well-known table-football game played by generations of youngsters. The game was invented by Peter Adolph, just after the second world war and he cheekily tried to register its name as 'The Hobby' but was unable to do so. However Adolph, aware of the hobby's scientific name - a Latin compound meaning 'small buzzard' - decided to call the game Subbuteo; an inspired choice which has since entered the language and side-stepped the 'authorities'.