Curlew and lapwing are two iconic wading birds which feature strongly in the memories of many people who have grown up by farmland or the coast. Along with other waders, they breed on lowland wetland, which makes up a significant portion of the habitat managed by RSPB Orkney. Their numbers have, however, fallen dramatically in the past few decades across the UK, and my MSc project aims to help understand why, by investigating whether nests are more likely to succeed in certain habitat types than in others.  

This spring I spent eight weeks monitoring around 40 lapwing nests and 10 curlew nests at The Loons and Loch of Banks reserves. Nests had to be checked every two to three days to determine whether they were still being incubated, and I also searched constantly for new nests. Both species nest on the ground in wet grassland, but as the vegetation changed throughout the survey period, they became increasingly hard to see; lapwing are the smaller of the two, but curlew have an impressive knack for huddling down invisibly among the brown-green grass tussocks.

View through the telescope of a nesting lapwing

An exciting aid to my monitoring has been the trail cameras which I put out on as many nests as possible. As well as close-up views of the parent birds incubating, preening, swapping over or snoozing, I have been treated to shots of nest success in the form of tiny, speckled chicks, and of nest failure in the form of mammalian and avian predators caught in the act of egg thievery.

A trail camera trained on a nest, and a nice little clutch of 4 lapwing eggs

Caught on TrailCam: being a good curlew parent

Caught on TrailCam: a little lapwing chick, and its proud parent

Hours spent sitting, waiting, binoculars glued to my eyes, could be no better spent than at The Loons or Loch of Banks. As the season progressed I watched the marsh marigolds grow into a thick carpet of yellow, learned the scratchy song of the sedge warbler and the sweeter one of the reed bunting hiding at the water’s edge, and had occasional visits from ospreys and otters. Best of all, I was constantly surrounded by the cacophony of displaying waders, which circle and drift across each other’s paths in the sky like some sort of malfunctioning spaghetti junction- with only the occasional squabble. Curlew bubble, black-tailed godwit cry with steady urgency; snipe drum high above my head and lapwing squeak furiously as they tumble in the sky.

RSPB The Loons: not a bad place to spend an afternoon

By mid-June, the nesting season is over for these birds, and the next step is to map the nests I have been observing- failed and successful- against habitat data, to determine how, if at all, habitat affects nesting success. It may be that some types of vegetation provide better camouflage for nests, or on the other hand, better cover for approaching predators. As well as forming the basis of my Master’s project, I hope that this analysis will provide valuable information for RSPB Orkney to use in future management plans as they work to conserve these species. I am optimistic that with more research into curlew and lapwing nesting habits, alongside careful management, we can continue to leave space in our landscape for the symphony of the wading birds.