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 Harry Fuller Birding Tours

THICK-KNEES: August 2005, near Rutland, UK

The Thick-knees family of birds is plentiful in parts of Africa. The most northern-ranging of the family is the Stone Curlew, found most abundantly in Spain, Turkey, Italy and southern Russia. The small breeding population in England seems reluctant in its annual migrations, leaving only in October, returning to nesting grounds in March.

The Stone Curlew is about the size of an oystercatcher. They're not very secretive ground-nesters, but they are well-camouflaged unless they move and their yellow legs become conspicuous. The bird is a mottled white and dusty brown, making it disappear amid the grass tufts, rocks and barren sand of its almost barren habitat. This Curlew's shaped like a Willet, on it's buttery-yellow legs, it's found in sandy and open areas. In England this means it nests in open areas that are not fit for crop raising and given over to sheep or just land that is not useful for agriculture. These are also areas where there is usually hunting and thus local gamekeepers control the fox population, letting the Curlews breed more successfully. Stoat and other open-land predators would not be a match for an angry adult Stone Curlew.

The first time I saw a Stone Curlew was at Weeting Heath in Suffolk. The tourist guide to wildlife for the region states blandly that this is the best place for seeing Stone Curlew. It is what Weeting Heath is famous for. And there we looked, along with several other birders, and there we did see exactly one Stone Curlew. We also later had fine views of a Woodlark, another hard to find bird in England, feeding young on its ground nest. Two lifers, a good day.

The Weeting Heath Curlew was about 200 yards away, still for awhile, then broke cover and walked about cautiously. Checking perhaps for edible beetles as the Curlew is a carnivore.

Months later I saw a second Stone Curlew. This time on Lesvos in Greece. This one was on a flat, dusty, salt pan near Kalloni Bay. Perhaps the birder spotting it had been expecting Crested Lark, Short-toed Lark, even some Pratincole. But this morning there were fifty birders from across northern Europe, buses and vans parked along the roadside. We were staring through scopes across the sere plants, the drifted salt and sand piles, and there it was: the head of a Stone Curlew, sticking above the surface. There was the bright yellow iris with the tiny black pupil in the rounded skull, behind the stout pointed black beak. It was simply the head of the Stone Curlew, the only Stone Curlew we fifty humans could see from the road outside the fenced wasteland.

We stared. The bird seems to stare back. The soft tan outline around the eye, the dark line just below it, the stare--all made the bird look worried, perhaps hungover.

"Wow, what a bird."
"I wish it would move."
"Really fine bird."
"Who found it?"
"I've seen them in Spain and Bulgaria, great bird."
"Can I get another look through the scope."
"He finally blinked at us."

Then back in the bus and off to find the Scops' Owl.

This past weekend I went for the second consecutive year to the Bird Fair in Rutland northwest of London. Representatives of bird tour companies from all over were there with booths. Bird artists, optics companies, booth dealers, sellers of bird paraphenalia, birders' clothing, digital cameras of all types and prices, bird sculptures, bird lectures and video shows, bird audio and video vendors, food and drink...and people pushing birding sites from America to Uganda. I did not see any from Zanzibar or Vietnam, alphabet now stops at Uganda. From California was the inimitable Debbie Shearwater.

The man from Zeiss took one look an my venerable binocs and began to work on them. Glued down the loose ribber coating to the metal cylinder. Cleaned lens and eyepieces. Tightened, adjusted, focused, straightened. Handed me back a like-new pair of old binoculars. Total cost: ten minutes, 0 £. This three-day event is the largest single annual gathering of bird people on the planet. Over 20,000 attend. And there's even some decent birding to be had. I saw two of the recently reintroduced Osprey now breeding on the lake. Along one mud bank is a man-made Bank Swallow apartment building of cement blocks with the proper holes in them and nest hollows inside. No predators can get in. Even Winter Wren and Kingfisher have used the nesting site along with the colony of swallows I could watch feeding overhead.

Perhaps if we installed some of these housing units around the Bay Area our Ocean Beach Bank Swallows would have a chance to colonize other nesting sites. There were Tree Sparrows at a feeder, a Common Buzzard floated over.

The next day I went birding with my host, David Tomlinson. He is a birding author and veteran of the British birding scene: http://www.worldlandtrust.org/news/2004/06/big-bird-race-and-its-sequel.htm

Just outside the door of his rural Suffolk house we had rabbit, hare, roe deer, zillions of Red-legged Partridge, a family of Whitethroat feeding in a hedge. Green Woodpeckers were cackling in the woods across the fields which still held unharvested wheat, narrow rows of corn planted to encourage the partridge and Pheasants that will be hunted next month.

After breakfast we went to great Livermere, a lake on private land. Hundreds of Greylag and Canada Geese lounged about. Lapwings, Mute Swan, Coot, Moorhen...then four Curlew Sandpipers flew in and landed. We'd met a local bird-bander who said it was the first record for them at this lake. And David chatted with him about local birding spots. Tomlinson lived all his life in Kent until he and his wife couldn't take any more of the infringing London slurbs, they sold their house which now seemed to have been cast in platinum and took that money for a little corner of more rural, remote Suffolk. Their house where they moved last fall sits amidst the fields of the giant Euston Estate. The bird bander knew the area, he'd lived in Suffolk his whole fifty years.

Then David quietly asked, "Any good place to look for Stone Curlew around here this time of year?"

I expected, "Weeting Heath."

But the man calmly, systematically gave us a verbal map to some place even David had not heard of..."past the Red Lion Pub...take the left past the sugar factor and follow the road out of Icklingham...it ends at a weak bridge, park there...walk the old road until you see the little hillocks on your right. There'll be some in there."

Yeah sure, "SOME." That's what David and I were thinking, silently.

We followed the directions. We looked. A Stone Curlew was watching us from 200 feet away amidst the chewed off sheep pasture and the bare sand. He moved, he halted, he stared some more. Not bad. But we pushed our luck, the a\ir was warm. Green Woodpeckers were everywhere--calling, flying their dipping and rising flight across the open fields. Opposite the sand field with Curlew was a field of blooming heather. Purple mist. There were supposed to be Woodlark so we continued our search. At a little rise in the road we could down onto most of the sandy pasture, see the distant sheep.

"There's another one. No two, three."
"There are more further on."
"That's sixteen."

Sixteen Stone Curlew.

David said to me, "There aren't many birders who seen that many Stone Curlew in England in a lifetime."

Watching the staring yellow eyes, the shuffling walk atop tall yellow stilts. Some of the juveniles were still quite pale. Then one Curlew bent his thick knees and knelt on the sand. The sheep shuffled about in the distance, unimpressed by the small creatures sharing their field. The woodpeckers traced through the sky oblivious to the earthlings below. The Stone Curlews went about their slow motion search for beetles, ignoring the two bipeds on the road behind the fence. It was one of those moments when you know it won’t get any better for the rest of the day.

Sixteen Stone Curlew in a single field. It was a preserved area called Cavenham Heath. If you want to see some Stone Curlew ask the local bird bander, or send me an email. An intense, yellow-eyed stare. What a bird.


TOWHEE.NET:  Harry Fuller, 820 NW 19th Street, McMinnville, OR 97128