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Curlews in May

The stillness of a crisp spring morning on Malham Moor was broken by the wild calls of a large bird on the wing. Rising steeply from the ground, it hovered briefly before descending to earth as if held by a parachute, the tapering wings angled in a V-shape. As it alighted on a disused barn at the edge of a rough pasture, I picked out the characteristic decurved bill and lanky legs of a curlew, Europe's largest wading bird. It was one of several males busy proclaiming their territories in spectacular aerial displays over the moor.

A larger bird with a longer bill - evidently a female - joined the first individual and I watched the pair settle in a pasture to feed as the warmth of the rising sun began to dry the dew-sodden grass. Although appearing a drab brown with the naked eye, through binoculars they revealed a delicate pattern of streaking and barring on the upperparts. They probed the earth, using their long bills as delicate culinary tools to tease out worms and other invertebrates.

The damp grassland around Malham Tarn, Yorkshire's second largest natural water body, is a curlew paradise. Here the bird finds the perfect mixture of habitats in which to breed. There is boggy ground for feeding, tussocks in which to nest and open water to bathe in, with the added bonus of the uninterrupted vista this shy wader so prefers. Here curlews breed in greater numbers than anywhere else in England and at 1,200 feet above sea-level, towards the upper end of their altitudinal range.

In a rushy area I was thrilled to stumble across a series of shallow hollows in the ground lined with plant material. These are nesting scrapes made by the male from which the female chooses her favourite. The young hatch after a month of incubation by both sexes and leave the nest as soon as their down is dry. They grow quickly on a rich diet of invertebrates and I enjoy the comical sight on them running quickly to keep up with their parents in the six weeks before they fledge. Curlews are most successful in traditionally-farmed areas. In 'improved' grassland there are fewer invertebrates and the taking of an early silage crop can put nests at risk. The most recent evidence, however, suggests that Yorkshire's curlews are doing well and a national park action plan has been initiated to boost nesting further.

As I walked towards the Tarn I noticed a small group of curlews loafing at the water's edge. Aware that the species is notoriously hard to approach I crouched down behind a weather-beaten silver birch to get a more prolonged view. One by one they began to feed on the stony margin of the tarn, jabbing and pecking the substrate to extract aquatic life. They reminded me of the flocks of winter curlews I frequently see on the Yorkshire coast, where they enjoy a diet of lugworms and shellfish. Here I have found curlews on winter feeding territories, excitedly defending their patches against intruders. Others adopt a less confrontational approach, and large, noisy flocks of curlews are a real feature of Yorkshire's coastal fringes in winter. Many of the curlews wintering in Yorkshire are thought to be continental birds from Scandinavia, whereas those breeding in the county mainly head to the west coast, with some reaching Ireland. When the adult birds leave their winter quarters in February to head back to the hill country, the young of the previous year often stay behind to spend a lazy summer at the seaside.

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