Monday, 1 July 2013

The Weeting Warden’s Diary: June

Simon Thompson – Summer Warden Weeting Heath NNR

“Simon, dear boy, there’s no doubt about it; they’ve hatched.” 

These were the words that I had been waiting for from Weeting’s voluntary warden. Affectionately known to many as “The Colonel”, Frank Godwin has been watching stone curlews on NWT Weeting Heath for almost as long as I’ve been on the planet. He is a real character with an endless supply of ‘stoney’ anecdotes and knowledge which I’m always tapping into. The female stone curlew in question had moved, less than a foot, but she’d moved. She was sat differently too, all fluffed up and fat-looking. After 24 days of watching that scrape even the smallest differences in position and behaviour scream out at you – something has changed!

NWT Weeting Heath stone curlew and chick 2013, photo by Lawrie Webb

We watched, watched, watched and then watched some more. Nothing. Finally, on the verge of adjourning for a much needed caffeine break we saw what we’d been hoping for. The male, our old friend ‘Upper-right Black’, came scooting over out of his favoured snoozing spot carrying an earthworm. He stopped suddenly, just short of the sitting female, dropped the worm and out from beneath her came wobbling two tiny grey downy chicks. They were by no means sure on their feet, but they got to that worm and devoured it in seconds before scuttling straight back to the warmth and safety of the female.

Three week old stone curlew chicks, having just been colour ringed by the 
RSPB Stone Curlew Project, photo by Simon Thompson

Every morning since then I’ve been scanning the heath in a cold sweat, hoping that the chicks have made it safely through the various dangers which the night brings. Then it happened. A visitor came dashing into the centre. “I’ve just seen a stoat and I think it took one of the little stone curlews” – My heart sank. I rushed out to the hide and there I could see Upper-right Black, calling away with only one chick at his feet. Where was the other chick? It was doing what stone curlew chicks do best. It had hunkered right down in the long grass, eyes closed and motionless. It stayed out of sight for what felt like an eternity, but I am very happy to say that both chicks made it. They’re 28 days old, have colour rings of their own and are developing into proper, peculiar little stone curlews.

Stone curlew chick being colour ringed, 
photo by Simon Thompson
Stone curlew chicks throughout the Brecks are monitored and colour ringed by the RSPB Stone Curlew Project, in conjunction with land owners and other conservation organisations such as ourselves. Colour ringing allows us to identify individual birds in the field, providing us with invaluable information about their movements and breeding behaviour and ultimately helping us to provide and manage suitable habitat to maintain and grow the Brecks’ breeding population of stone curlews.

Ringing may look a bit uncomfortable but the birds aren’t harmed at all and they keep amazingly calm and still throughout the process. The parent stone curlew can be heard issuing a call known as ‘Chick Wailing’ which signals to the chicks to stay where they are; a defence mechanism to avoid predation. They are almost invisible when they hunker down against the stony ground of the heath – amazing camouflage. In another few weeks this pair of chicks will be flying around and eventually moved off by the adults. With a bit of luck and the juveniles out of their hair the adults will settle themselves down and lay again and the nail biting, edge of the seat monitoring work can start all over again!

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