Author: Rupert Masefield

Some of its nicknames may sound less-than-flattering – goggle-eyed plover, heath chicken, thick-knee – but there aren’t many birds that have captured the hearts of the people that share the land where they live as completely as the stone-curlew.

As unflattering as those names might be, they do give a fair impression of this wide-eyed wader: it really does have big yellow eyes and thick ‘knees’ (actually its ankles). Of course, it’s not unusual for a plant or animal’s common and colloquial names to be descriptive of its most noticeable characteristics. Woodpeckers do peck wood and a hedge is a good place to look for hedge sparrows (another name for a dunnock) – so it should come as no surprise to learn that stone-curlews have a penchant for making their nests on bare stony ground and have a high-pitched whistling call similar to that of a Eurasian curlew (to which they are not otherwise closely related).

Photo: Stone-curlew hiding in vegetation, credit: Andy Hay.

They are largely nocturnal, lying low during the day, giving them a certain air of mystery, and they are intimately associated with the unique characteristics of the landscapes in which they live – the sandy flint-strew grass heathland of the Brecks and Suffolk Coast, and the chalk plateau of Salisbury Plain – nesting on the ground in the open and relying on their incredible cryptic camouflage to stay hidden. Males and females take it turns to incubate their eggs and in an entirely charming ritual, when it is time to swap places the returning bird passes its partner a small pebble or piece of flint, which is dropped on the edge of the nest until all these little tokens accumulate to surround the nest like a meteor belt around a planet.

Photo: Stone curlew adult near nest and eggs, credit: Chris Gomersall.

It is likely thanks in part to their curious appearance and habits that stone-curlews have become such celebrated residents in the few parts of the country where they are still found. Unfortunately the same habits and reliance on the landscape that made them a favourite with the people that knew them also caused them problems, first when much of the habitat on which they depended disappeared and then when the mechanisation of farming made their nests on the bare patches in amongst farmers’ crops vulnerable to being unintentionally destroyed by farm operations.

Photo: Stone curlew nest with eggs, tractor in background furrowing crops, credit: Chris Gomersall.

Since the mid-1980s though, when there were as few as a hundred breeding pairs of stone-curlews left in the country, farmers, landowners, gamekeepers and conservationists in the Brecks and across the other side of the country in Wessex have all stepped up to turn things around for these charismatic birds. Today there are three times as many pairs breeding in the UK as there were 30 years ago, and that is largely down to the heroic efforts of a small number of people and communities in the places where stone-curlews live.

Photo: close-up of a plot managed for Stone Curlew, credit: Andy Hay.

It is thanks to these heroes that we still have stone-curlews returning to the UK from Africa to breed each summer.

In these places, people’s connection with nature where they live has helped to save this very special part of it. Legal protection and funding for conservation and agri-environment schemes have played their part too, of course, and the spectre of Brexit looms large over these, but the future of stone-curlews in the UK is that much safer for having people who care about them enough to go the extra mile to look after them.

Find out more about stone-curlews