Curlew conservation in Poland

This is the second of two blog posts on Curlew Action's visit to Poland, read Mary's reflections in this blog post.

The first link with Polish Curlew workers was established when a Curlew colour-ringed on the Usk estuary in Wales in January 2016 was resighted in Poland from 19 to 26 April 2018 in one of the Polish Curlew breeding areas; this came as a huge surprise to everyone as, until then, there had only ever been two recoveries of ringed Curlews moving between UK and Poland.

Photo of a ringed Eurasian Curlew feeding in grassland
Curlew Black White Orange which breeds in Poland and winters in south Wales

This sighting in Poland led to a lively exchange of correspondence with Dominik Krupinski, the leader of the active group of Polish Curlew workers, who use colour rings and satellite tags on their own breeding Curlews, several of which have since appeared on the south coast of England.

An image from showing the satellite track between Poland and England
Satellite track of a Curlew from its breeding ground in Poland to its wintering area in England

Five of the Polish group took part in the Curlew Action European Curlew Fieldworkers’ Conference in King's Lynn in February 2024, and in turn invited Mary Colwell and Mike Smart to attend a wader conference at Narewka (near the famous Bialowieza National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site) in eastern Poland in mid-April and afterwards to visit Curlew nesting sites in central Poland.

The conference reviewed work to recreate wader breeding habitat (mainly for Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing and Redshank), with unforgettable night visits to a lekking site of Great Snipe, with Spotted Crakes calling in the background. Also present at the conference was a scientist from Belarus, a key target country for Curlew Action.

Presentations at the conference included one on the Polish Curlew project, the main points of which were:

  • Decrease in Polish breeding Curlew population from 700 pairs in 1990 to 300 pairs in 2013, now stabilised round 200 pairs.
  • Most nests in wet meadows in river valleys.
  • Fledging rate 0.3 to 0.4 chicks per pair per annum, insufficient to maintain population.
  • Heavy predation (84% of nests predated: 24% mammals, 14% corvids, 62% unknown).
  • Increase in fox population from 1980s following rabies vaccination.
  • Polish project makes extensive use of headstarting:
    • Two eggs taken from each Curlew nest, leaving wild birds to raise remaining two.
    • Eggs hatched in incubators by project members, newly hatched chicks kept indoors, larger chicks taken to outdoor pens, and released after fledging.
    • No use of artificial eggs, very young chicks not returned to wild parents, no use of wooden eggs.
    • 693 young birds released 2014-2023. 63 marked with GPS loggers of which at least 20 have survived. Majority winter in France (32) and Spain (19), 10 in UK, one in Senegal; 31 of 70 head-started Curlews have attempted to breed.
    • Head-starting seen not as a permanent practice, but as a temporary remedy while habitat is improved.
    • The future five-year Curlew LIFE project begins in September 2024 and will continue this head-starting work but main focus on habitat restoration and land purchase.
    • Polish experience shows that head-starting can be successful in a low cost system, carried out largely by volunteers. The current highly intensive and expensive head-starting UK methodology is not the only way to conduct head-starting; simpler, cheaper systems can be affordable, achievable, and successful.

Guided by Dominik Krupianski and Przemek Obloza, we then visited Curlew breeding sites along the Rivers Bug and Narew, midway between Warsaw and the border with Belarus - winding lowland river valleys with broad floodplains, not unlike the Severn, Avon or Thames valleys in UK, but simply on an altogether different, gigantic scale. The sites are protected under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives as Natura 2000 sites (one covering over 60,000 hectares, the other 4,000 hectares).

The Lower Bug site contains a number of old oxbow lakes with shallow depressions, holding water and reeds during our visit, but which dry out in summer. Much is privately owned, and the hay is generally cut in late June. Curlews were already present and making bubbling song-flights.

The smaller Pulwy Marsh has more peaty soils; seven hectares have already been bought, and there are plans, when the LIFE project is operational, to acquire another 57 hectares, which will be rewetted to create habitat not only for Curlews but for wintering waterbirds. This area too holds about ten pairs of breeding Curlews, and we saw and heard several carrying out song-flights.

Work on Curlews is carried out on two other sites, and this will intensify once the LIFE project begins. In all four areas headstarting is carried out, and one person will have 30 or 40 eggs in an incubator; hatched chicks are raised at first indoors then, as they grow, in an enclosure in a private garden (sometimes belonging to the person who has operated the incubator – in all a relatively restricted number of people are involved and receive some payment for their efforts). The chicks are fed on crickets and mealworms, available from shops selling bait to fishermen.

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