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Keeper's ground-nesting bird update, by Austin Weldon

Updated 29th June 2021

Early summer in the New Forest

As a New Forest Keeper, I probably have one of the best “offices” there is. A key part of my role is to help monitor and look after the Forest’s wildlife. At this time of year, we are particularly focused on ground-nesting birds, which as the name suggests take the rather precarious approach of building their nests and rearing their young on the ground.

The New Forest is a Special Protection Area for birds and other biodiversity, due to the wide range of species that live here and visit to breed, attracted by the area’s rich mix of woodland, heath and wetland habitats.

Ground-nesting birds are of particular importance and the New Forest is one of the last remaining habitats in the country where you will find such diversity of this group. The ability of these birds to successfully breed and raise young here is  critical to their survival in the UK.

Species found here include lapwing, curlew, snipe and skylark who favour the heathland and wetland areas, and those such as woodlark and wood warblers who nest in low cover and on the ground on woodland edges.

Curlew in the New Forest

Curlew on New Forest heathland, image credit: Elli Rivers

Monitoring methods

Over the last couple of months, our team have been closely monitoring the ground-nesting birds arriving here  and their fortunes as the season progresses. We use a variety of methods to monitor wildlife in the Forest and in recent years advancements in  stealth camera technology has taken our knowledge of the challenges these birds face to new levels. These allow us to closely observe the nesting process, and better understand why and how they can fail. Also, by watching the parents’ behaviour we can assess where the birds are in the breeding season, looking at things like courtship, territory establishment, or how parents attempt to deter and distract predators.

This year we are also collaborating with Bournemouth University, and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to monitor the ground-nesting bird season and in particular the fortunes of curlews. The data we collect will help inform and improve the understanding of the key challenges currently faced by these birds. 

Austin Weldon a New Forest Keeper monitoring wildlife

Austin Weldon, New Forest Keeper, image credit: Nick Whittle.

Back in April we saw the arrival of lapwing and curlew. Since then, they have been busy with courting rituals and establishing their nests. We are also lucky to have a population of UK resident woodcock, which remain here year-round rather than migrating east, which the vast majority do. Some of the migrant birds amazingly travel as far as Siberia to breed before returning here in the winter. Woodcock males made their presence known by “roding” – flying high around areas at dusk, croaking and squeaking to claim their territories and attract the attention of females.

Like woodcock, lapwing are also early nesters and we have seen a few of their broods successfully hatch and are now on the cusp of fledging. One of the nests we’ve been closely watching demonstrates how little-known behaviour can be gleaned with modern technology. A female lapwing left the nest with the chicks starting to hatch just before dusk, she then returned to the nest at dawn the following morning. At this point she immediately got to work protecting her new brood by removing the eggshells from the nesting site, then once the chicks where fluffy and dry she moved them on to a new area, and away from the nest. It is thought that lapwing do this to try and outwit predators by reducing the scent and evidence of the nest. They are known to go to great lengths to achieve this, moving eggshells up to 50 metres or so away.

Curlew are another species we watch closely. Currently on the red list due to their near endangered status, their numbers in the UK lowlands have dropped by as much as 60% in recent years. Given that 25% of the global population of these birds are resident in the UK, halting this decline here is so critical to the survival of this species.

These are some of the hardest birds to monitor due to their secretive nesting behaviour, but with patience and persistence the team have managed to locate a high proportion of curlew nests. These are now being monitored using a combination of remote visual checks, stealth cameras and physical inspections once the birds are no longer using the nesting site.

Curlew leaving its nest and taking flight

Curlew leaving its nest, captured on remote camera, image credit: Elli Rivers

It is still early in the season and many birds will have several attempts yet to successfully breed. We also now have Nightjar present, having recently flown here all the way from Africa. They favour heathland and woodland edges, where trees have recently been cleared. The New Forest is a stronghold for them with around 15% of the UK population found here.

We will be continuing to monitor the progress of many species as we go through the season, which ends in late August. Finding out more about why breeding fails is critical to the survival of these birds. The more we know about the biggest threats to them during this time, the better we can help protect them in the future.

Anyone spending time on the Forest at this time of year can help support these incredible birds by taking a few simple steps to avoid disturbing them and causing parents to flee their nests. Please stick to the main tracks and keep your dog with you and do not allow them to venture off these or out onto the open heathlands.  You can also look out for special orange and red signs that help you know when you are in very sensitive nesting sites.