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An aura of wildness surrounds the curlew perhaps more than any other wading bird. Its onomatopeoic, haunting cries ringing out across the lonely marshes and the tideways it inhabits embody the atmosphere of these often lonely and desolate places.

The curlew is the largest European wading bird, instantly recognisable on winter estuaries or summer moors by its long, downcurved bill, brown upperparts, long legs and evocative call.

Increasing numbers of Curlews have been present on the seashore at Rhos-on-Sea for a few weeks now, but I’ve been waiting to get some reasonable photographs before I wrote about them in more detail. There were several obstacles along the path to obtaining some clear images, not least of which was the fact that they are almost perfectly camouflaged within this rocky landscape, where brown is the predominant colour.

Despite their size, curlews blend perfectly into this landscape


Curlew Numenius arquata   [Linnaeus, 1758]

Order: Charadriiformes Family: Scolopacidae
 Number in Britain: 105 thousand pairs (Summer)
 Conservation Status:
European: 2 Concern, most in Europe; Declining
Global: Near Threatened Details )

Curlews fly fast and low along the sea edge-in flight the white rump is very noticeable

Curlews glide smoothly and quietly through pools of water hunting for small invertebrates

The long curved beak enables the curlew to probe well under rocks

A curlew foraging peacefully alongside an oystercatcher


In Great Britain the greatest numbers of breeding curlews are found here in North Wales, but a glance at a field guide will indicate the vast area occupied by the birds. Their 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.

Autumn and winter

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.

The curlew flock numbers several hundred. They roost in this field at the foot of Bryn Euryn, close to houses and a main road. They return at high tide too when they may be seen foraging in the field or standing quietly with their bills tucked under their wings.

When they are not foraging along the seashore here in Rhos-on-Sea the curlew flock surprisingly shares a field with cows, sheep and a couple of horses. Their choice of roost took me by surprise as the field is very close to a busy road, in total contrast to the deserted open spaces they are usually identified with.

When roosting the more dominant curlew tend to occupy the better sheltered areas within the assembly; birds at the front of flocks form closely packed ‘walls’ in high winds.

Coastal numbers build up from July and reach a peak in January and February. The resident UK population is boosted by incoming migrants to some 99,500–125-000 pairs. 

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: each of international importance for wintering curlew, the four localities holding largest numbers are Morecombe Bay, the Solway, the Wash and the Dee. 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.

Curlews foraging at sea edge

The Curlew in folklore

The curlew features strongly in folklore, often not too favourably.

To hear a curlew call is not good. If you hear it at night, it means that bad luck is coming, but if heard during the day it signifies the arrival of bad weather.

The curlew has always been a bird of bad omen to sailors who have seen them flying overhead and if you hearing their call means that a storm is brewing and its inadvisable to set sail for the open sea.

St Beuno and the Curlew

It is hard to find the nest of the curlew; this story from the folklore of North Wales, attributed to St Beuno offers an explanation for that.

When he lived at Clynnog St Beuno used to go regularly on Sundays to preach at Llanddwyn, off the coast of Anglesey, walking on the sea with the book of sermons, which he used to carry about with him. One Sunday, as he was coming back from Llanddwyn to Clynnog, treading the surface of the sea as if it had been dry land, he dropped his precious writings into the water, and failed to recover them. The saint was much worried, because even for saints the task of writing sermons is a troublesome one.

When he reached dry land he was much relieved to find his book on a stone out of the reach of the tide,with a curlew mounting guard over it. The pious bird had picked it up, and brought it to safety. Thereupon the holy man knelt down and prayed for the protection and favour of the Creator for the curlew. His
prayer was heard, and ever since it has been extremely difficult to discover where the long-beaked bird lays its eggs.