COLUMN: A surprise encounter with one of our most iconic but endangered species

A curlew has taken to feeding on the estuary outside our Donegal Town office

COLUMN: A surprise encounter with one of our most iconic  but endangered species

The curlew can often be heard from the shores of Donegal Bay. PHOTO: Siobhán McNamara

The long and haunting call of the curlew is surely one of the most iconic sounds of our coasts, bogs and wetlands.

For me it stirs up memories of days at the bog, long summer holidays and evening walks on remote, quiet beaches. I have often heard them, and have seen them from a distance  in the evening half-light, but never up close.

However, in recent days, a curlew has taken to feeding on the Eske estuary right outside the window of our Donegal Town office and it is a joy to behold.

I’m no wildlife expert but I do have a keen interest and I absolutely treasure those ‘close encounters’ with our native fauna. 

There is something very humbling and precious about a fleeting glimpse of a fox, the surprising agility of a badger, a red deer nimbly jumping a fence, the speed of a hare zig-zagging across a field, or the delightful acrobatics of a red squirrel.

Our birds can also give us great joy. From something as simple and commonplace as a robin with its beak wide open in full-throated song, to a bird of prey circling effortlessly on thermals high above us, nature is full of wondrous experiences.

I am blessed to overlook the Eske estuary on the inner edge of Donegal Bay from my office window. As well as countless gulls, we often see heron and egret, mallards, swans, grebes and cormorants. 

But looking out on Tuesday morning and seeing a curlew feeding right below the window has to rate among my top Irish wildlife encounters.

Only a few weeks ago, we had a story about how endangered the curlew had become. I felt saddened at the time to think that, as with the demise of the corncrake,  we might never hear  the  distinctive  curlew call again. 

Their cry sometimes accompanies us on our dragon boat training sessions on those perfectly still evenings in late summer or early autumn. As a group of up to 20 women and men of all ages and fitness levels, working together to propel our boat over the water using nothing but our own combined efforts, it is easy to feel at one with the watery world around us. 

The long cry of the curlew is the perfect soundtrack as we stretch to our limits and push our paddles deep into the water, bringing ourselves back towards the pier before the last light fades.

Sadly, according to Birdwatch Ireland, a national survey carried out between 2015 and 2017 found that only 138 breeding pairs remain in the entire country. This decline is drastic, and is being mirrored in the UK which is home to around a quarter of the world curlew population. It would be very sad to see this trend  continue to the point of extinction.

Curlew are a very distinctive species of wading bird. Their long, slender legs are perfect for standing in shallow water and shoreline mud where they feed on invertebrate such as insects, shrimps and worms.

By far its most distinctive feature is the long, curved bill. The bill is very sensitive and is used to feel around in the mud for food. However, the  tongue is too short to reach  the end of its bill so curlews can be seen tossing their food into the air in order to catch and eat it.

The unusual bill gave the curlew its genus name, Numenius which comes from two Greek words, ‘neos’ meaning new, and ‘mene’ meaning moon, thus describing the smallest sliver of a new  moon in its earliest phase.

The species name of our Eurasian curlews also references the shape of its bill - the word arquata is the Latin term for an archery bow.

It is somewhat reassuring that a curlew that has taken to feeding on the Eske estuary at low tide. At least it shows that there is still a local population. 

This is reinforced by people reporting that they still hear the curlew’s call on Donegal Bay. 

It’s presence so close to the town could indicate that the reduction in traffic and human activity during lockdown is beneficial to the species, encouraging curlews to new feeding grounds. 

Here’s hoping that this wonderful, iconic bird will survive and will once again start to thrive - with our help.

Recording a wildlife sighting

During lockdown, more people have been getting out and about and enjoying the natural environment. 

Reporting wildlife sightings, from the everyday to the unusual,  is contributing to records that help form a picture of the health of our flora and fauna. This in turn makes it easier to notice changes before they become irreversible, so every reported sighting helps. 

Anyone who wishes to report wildlife sightings in their area can go to www.biodiversityireland.ie and fill in a simple form. 

A photograph is helpful but not necessary.

If you have a story or want to send a photo or video to us please contact the Donegal Live editorial team any time. To contact Donegal Democrat and Donegal People's Press, email editorial@donegaldemocrat.ie To contact Donegal Post, email editor@donegalpost.com To contact Inish Times, email editor@inishtimes.com.

More News

Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.

Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.