Colin Mclennan is a volunteer with Curlew LIFE, a partnership project which aims to reverse the decline of curlews across the UK. In today's blog, he tells us about his experiences as a surveyor on our Insh Marshes nature reserve and where the project will hopefully go next.

I’m sitting here with a flask of tea in the warm sunshine, the River Spey is flowing quietly beside me and I’m looking out over Insh Marshes to the last of the snow on the Cairngorms. Curlew and lapwing are calling, there are goldeneyes in the river and the sand martins are back and busy at their nests. Life doesn’t get much better. Mind you a few months back here I was struggling through floods in waders, then there were blizzards, then biting frosts, but to be honest I love all that too. To see this place in all its moods and dramatic conditions is one of the privileges of volunteering on the RSPB’s Curlew Life team here in the nature reserve at Insh Marshes.

 The wetlands of Insh Marshes are frames by trees on the right and hills on the left. There is a touch of frost on the vegetation.

I must admit I was shocked to discover just how threatened the UK’s curlews are; destruction of habitat, changes in farming practices and probably climate change are all contributing to falling populations of this beautiful bird and its haunting call, which was such an emblem of our countryside. Here at Insh is one of few remaining strongholds for the birds, and so along with other sites in the UK a dedicated team is constantly monitoring the curlews, their breeding success, and the factors affecting that; in the hope that they can not only be directly protected but also that a body of knowledge and best practice can be established and disseminated to help reverse the trends and start to restore curlew numbers across the UK and beyond.

As an RSPB volunteer, the Curlew Life project has been my main focus so far; once volunteering got going again as Covid restrictions eased in late 2021. The core of my role is monitoring the presence and numbers of potential predators. The eggs and chicks of curlew and other waders are a natural part of the diet of foxes, badgers, pine marten, stoats, otters, herons, crows and a host of flying raptors. These are constantly monitored through a network of trail cameras around the reserve, its my job to walk round every few weeks, collecting the cards and uploading the data, which creates an accurate picture of the pressures on the birds.

Since early April the curlews have been returning from their wintering grounds around the coast, its heartening to see so many coming back here, but easy to forget this is quite a unique scenario, and that numbers are much less around the countryside generally. They took a while to get going but breeding is now in full swing, this brings added duties of helping to locate the nests (long cold early mornings with spotting scopes) which are recorded and tracked again using trail cameras, and additional surveys of avian predators.

I enjoy all of this, I get to know so much more about one of my favourite parts of Scotland, as well as hopefully helping to protect its wildlife. I have many new friends among the fantastic team of RSPB staff and volunteers, as well as many others in local communities and related organisations who all recognise the pressures on our wildlife and environment and are working hard towards addressing these.

Final mention for now though has to go to the heroes of the reserve – the Konik ponies. This tough little herd performs a vital role in grazing the rough vegetation to keep the habitat right for ground-nesting birds, and they are less fussy and more self-reliant than any other grazers. They are effectively feral but observed every day by a dedicated project officer to ensure their well-being. They endured the winter storms without complaint, I know because they show up on my cameras, day and night; so it’s a real delight to see them now getting a well-earned break as they too enjoy the spring sunshine.

 Two Konik ponies are grazing in a field while two more are laying down.

Some are more friendly (or curious) than others, and they are deployed on parts of the reserve that the public seldom if ever visit; but on the right day and with all due caution, a welcome visit from these admirable animals is a true highlight.

The pressure is now on the Insh team to keep track and keep recording curlew breeding success for some weeks yet, and hopefully be able to report increasing numbers of chicks making it through their early and most vulnerable months. Keep watching.


To learn more about the Curlew LIFE project, visit their website.