The Monthly Web Magazine for Birdwatchers   
Home Bird Guide Features Birding news and events Bird reserves Birdwatching Clubs Mystery Bird Quiz Birdwatching FAQ's Bird Shop
 Curlew - Fact File
Numenius arquata
Breeds over most of region except for south east England. More widespread and common in winter when continental birds join the residents.
Breeds on moors, boggy heaths, upland pasture. In winter, distribution is mainly coastal, especially the large estuaries, except in Ireland where many winter inland.

Large brown streaked wader with very long down-curved bill. Bill usually longer in females. Has wonderful evocative bubbling song, and whistling cur-lee calls.

Main confusion species is Whimbrel, which is smaller, has shorter bill and stripy head pattern

50 - 60 cm (20 - 24")


An aura of wildness surrounds the curlew perhaps more than any other wader. Its calls epitomise the atmosphere of the lonely marshes and tideways where it is found.

Most memorable part of the curlew's repertoire is the beautiful bubbling trill which is specially related to courtship and may in fact be appreciated at all seasons.

A giant among waders, the curlew is unmistakable with long bill and legs. Flying the white rump is very noticeable, but there is no wing-bar.

A glance at a field guide will indicate the vast area occupied by breeding curlews. Range extends from this country east to the Urals and from Scandinavia and Russia in the north. This wide extent of habitats includes upland moors, grassy or boggy open areas in forests and damp grasslands and traditionally managed hayfields particularly in river valleys.

Directly after the nesting season the birds shift to marine coastal areas especially favouring mudflats and sands extensively exposed at low tide. Like most waders, at high water curlew form large roosts on either the highest saltings or on fields and marshes behind the sea walls. In some localities the birds move to nocturnal roosting spots at dusk, leaving again at dawn.

Curlew from Scotland spend autumn and winter on the British west coast and in Ireland. Populations from Scandinavia, the former Baltic States and north-west Russia head south-westwards towards this country. Others, remarkably, winter in Iceland and the Faroes. And yet others penetrate to the West African coast. Curlew are capable of migrating at remarkable altitudes even crossing the Himalayas at a height of 20,000 feet.

The annual Wetland Bird Survey published jointly by the British Trust for Ornithology, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee is packed with fascinating information on our wildfowl and waders. Each of international importance for wintering curlew, the four localities holding largest numbers are Morecombe Bay, the Solway, the Wash and the Dee.

When visiting the Solway I marvelled at the thousands of nesting curlew massed at the edge of the incoming tide. When roosting the more dominant curlew tend to occupy the more sheltered areas within the assembly; birds at the front of flocks form closely packed 'walls' in high winds.

It was at Breydon during my earliest birding visits that I became familiar with parties of curlew. This estuary would never be the same without those haunting cries and the wonderful bubbling song.

.By Michael J Seago

Return to Bird Guide Index

Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.