For the first time in the UK, scientists working in the Brecks are using high-tech GPS tags to study the movements of one of the country’s most threatened birds, the Stone Curlew.
Stone Curlews, were close to becoming extinct as breeding birds in the UK 30 years ago. Thanks to conservation efforts, around 400 pairs of Stone Curlews now breed in the UK each year – more than half of those in Eastern England. By using GPS tracking to learn more about how these shy and elusive birds use different areas of the countryside, researchers hope to help landowners create the conditions Stone Curlews need for nesting and feeding, in order to ultimately achieve a sustainable Stone Curlew population in the UK.
The study is part of the PhD research of Rob Hawkes, RSPB Heathland Officer, and is being supported by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, the University of East Anglia, Natural England, EU LIFE+ as well as our Ground Disturbance project. Rob Hawkes says “It’s incredibly exciting, not just because we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, but because we’re learning new things about how the birds behave that just haven’t been possible to study before, and this will improve our understanding of what we need to do to help Stone Curlews.”
And there have already been some surprising results: “We knew that Stone Curlews are mainly nocturnal and forage at night. When they have eggs the adults take it in turns to sit on the nest, which gives the ‘off duty’ bird the chance to go in search of a meal. Using the GPS tags we have discovered individual birds travelling much further from their nest to find food than had been known previously, suggesting the birds are prepared to travel a substantial distance to reach a favoured feeding site.”
Thirty years ago, most of stone curlews’ natural breeding habitat – grass-heaths and downs – had been lost, and a high proportion of birds took instead to nesting on farmland, where they were extremely vulnerable to agricultural machinery operations. Thanks to the intensive efforts of farmers, land managers, gamekeepers and conservation organisations to protect vulnerable nests and create safe nesting plots, the number of Stone Curlews breeding in the UK has more than doubled since 1985. However, with many pairs (more than half of those in the Brecks) still nesting in areas of farmland where they are at risk from farming operations, more sustainable solutions are needed to secure the UK Stone Curlew population.