Diary of a CEEC fieldworker

By Harry Ewing, PhD candidate in BIO

Email: h.ewing@uea.ac.uk

Twitter: @Ewing_birds

Fieldwork can be both mentally and physically exhausting, but it can also yield enormously valuable and rewarding experiences. This blog post documents my first PhD field season, setting up a new study system in the wilds of Eastern England.

Exploring The Brecks

When people think of fieldwork, Attenborough-esque images of rainforests and arctic expeditions may spring to mind. In reality it is rarely this glamourous. My study area is a dry, dusty, arable-dominated landscape with no orangutans or polar bears in sight and, when first glanced through an insect-splattered car window on a journey between Norwich and London, may not seem a particularly inspiring fieldwork location. However, scratch the surface and it becomes obvious that Breckland, also known as The Brecks, is actually one of the most ecologically-unique regions of the UK, hosting a suite of nationally scarce and range-restricted flora and fauna.

Having grown up in Norfolk, I was already somewhat familiar with the ecology of The Brecks, but opportunities to visit were rare, and much of the region remained a mystery due to large areas being owned by the Ministry of Defence and private estates. One of the perks of being a field-based researcher is being granted access to many of these areas, so once spring arrived and access had been arranged, I was itching to get out and explore.

The Brecks didn’t disappoint. During the first couple of weeks, I had encounters with otters, foxes, badgers, lesser-spotted woodpeckers, woodlarks, crossbills, stone curlews and a great-grey shrike. I immediately felt at home.

A young otter waiting in anticipation for its mother to catch a fish.

Getting acquainted with curlew

The aim of my PhD is to identify actions to conserve the Eurasian curlew, a threatened species of wading bird. Prior to starting my PhD, my experience of curlew was limited to observing birds foraging on estuaries, saltmarshes and coastal fields during the winter. In my mind, curlew were the less-interesting cousin of whimbrel and godwit and a species to which I had never paid much attention. I was apprehensive about whether my motivation would wane after the first few weeks in the field.

How wrong I was. Breeding curlew are the most charismatic species that I’ve ever had the privilege to study. To start with, their song; a bubbling, haunting, melancholic sound that brings hope to a cold, misty, Breckland morning. Early in the season this can be closely followed by a courtship display. An endearing but embarrassingly uncoordinated dance, sparking the complete opposite set of emotions to the song. These displays are performed by the male and rather reminiscent of dad-dancing; females are often far from impressed and shoo away the admirer. For such a placid bird, curlew are also impressively resilient. Once nests are laid and chicks are hatched, curlew switch to warrior-mode, aggressively dive-bombing encroaching buzzards and crows, and occasionally charging at livestock!

All of these behaviours are incredible to observe but they’re also a crucial part of the data collection process. Spending long hours in the field provides many valuable insights into how curlew function and view different landscapes and habitats. This can be key when designing study methods or interpreting results.

Unfortunately, curlew are declining rapidly across much of Europe, mainly as a result of unsustainably low rates of breeding productivity. However, it seems that the curlew population in Breckland is stable and possibly increasing, providing the perfect opportunity to identify conditions in which curlew nests can hatch and chicks can fledge.

An adult curlew on a Breckland RAF base. Around 150 pairs of curlew are thought to breed in Breckland making it one of the most important regions for the species in southern England.

One big Easter egg hunt

Since working as a research assistant in Iceland I’ve been addicted to finding wader nests. Sometimes it takes hours of careful observation to find a nest and, in other cases, it’s just a split-second glimpse of a bird sneaking away, revealing its secrets. Either way, the adrenaline rush of finding a beautifully camouflaged but hugely vulnerable clutch of eggs, neatly arranged in a scrape on the ground, always ignites the same euphoria.

In the case of the curlew, it is obvious when a bird has a nest. It acts shifty, as if it’s trying to hide something. It will pretend to feed by flicking around leaf litter. Its awareness is heightened, tilting its head to the sky, wary of on-looking crows and raptors. But, give it enough space and it will always go back, making a quick, direct walk, straight to its nest.

So far, I have been lucky enough to experience this 75 times in Breckland. Many of those nests failed due to fox predation so it is always a treat when the eggs hatch and the curlew is rewarded for weeks of careful incubation.

The majority of Breckland curlew breed in semi-natural grasslands, however, some lay nests in arable fields like this sugar beet crop. It seems that nests in this habitat have a greater chance of hatching.

An incubating curlew sitting tightly on her nest; tricky to spot even with knowledge of the nest location.

Fluff overload

A major part of my fieldwork is tracking curlew chicks from hatching all the way to fledging. From these observations we can get a great idea of how chicks use the Breckland landscape, which can directly inform habitat management. This is one of the most enjoyable periods of the season and is usually when I invite friends to join me so that they can experience the sweetest creatures known to science. It’s hard to be a serious scientist when working with fluffy curlew chicks.

Curlew chicks have long, gangly legs and can walk and forage straight out of the nest. This makes them very vulnerable to predation so the parents are in close attendance until fledging, which takes around five weeks.

At around three to four weeks old, curlew chicks are large enough to catch and colour-ring. This is not as easy as it sounds. Curlew chicks are the Houdinis of the bird world and can disappear in a flash. You often hear them running through the long grass right past you, but even then they can be impossible to find. If you’re lucky enough to spot them crouched down next to a building or under a clump of nettles you’d better be feeling fit because, as well as being talented magicians, they’re also superstar Olympic sprinters. This makes for very entertaining viewing when your supervisors try to chase them down.

When you do eventually catch them, all that effort is rewarded with a shower of curlew poo and a cloud of crusty, dry skin; teenage curlew chicks have the most horrific dandruff ever! It’s very much worth it though; receiving news that your colour-ringed chick has been re-sighted on its wintering ground on the other side of the country is amazing and finding them back in Breckland the following spring, even better.

Challenges and rewards

I’ve managed to get through 90% of this blog post without mentioning any of the negative aspects of fieldwork. From flat tires and leaky camera trap batteries to dead curlew chicks, missing friends and crumpled fieldwork vehicles, there’s no denying that fieldwork is a challenge. I’ve been lucky that the negatives are easily forgotten and have been far outweighed by the positives. From opportunities to ring goshawks and stone curlews to finding long-eared owl fledglings and the many memorable moments spent watching curlew, nothing beats the thrill of collecting my own data in beautiful locations, while being afforded the time to immerse myself in the life of a charismatic study species. Bring on field season 2021.

Thetford Forest hosts a large population of breeding goshawk and I was lucky enough to be invited out to colour-ring a brood.

Probably my most exciting fieldwork find so far in Breckland was a brood of fledged long-eared owls. With patience, they can be located during daylight hours due to their distinctive begging call.