The Hidden Heritage of High Lodge

Stone Curlews

from Bury Free Press Saturday 11 February 1888


This bird by instinct ever shuns the ground
Where Cultivation war with Nature wages -
And thus on Thetford's sandy plains he's found
A safe and happy home throughout the ages.
Thither each year he's wing'd his amorous flight
From southern lands to play the British lover,
And there unto this day responds at night
The nosy piping of the Norfolk plover.
Man's agricultural changes but despoil
Of happiness the bird whose moderation
Finds fruitfulness upon a sterile soil,
And social bliss in scenes of desolation.
Yet when man plants a wood upon the heath
The Curlew round the tree-roots digs with pleasure
And he and his love' mater find underneath
The loosen'd soil a store of luscious treasure.
But when the trees shoot up and grow apace,
And so to myriad birds give peaceful cover,
No longer in the shady syivan place
Is heard the whistle of the Norfolk plover!

This bird, a summer visitor, arrives in this country from the south about the beginning of April, and leaves us in October. It visits Germany every year, and is numerous in France, Spain, Italy, Sicily, and Madeira, and goes as far south as South Africa; while its eastward range extends to Asia Minor. Very powerful on the wing, its range is, indeed of great geographical extent. It is very rare in Ireland, and by Yarrell is not traced further north in Britain than Yorkshire. It breeds on the fallows near Scarborough, visits Lancashire and Lincolnshire, is rare in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, and is common in Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, and in our own Eastern Counties.

By some naturalists this bird has been called the Thick-kneed Bustard, while Bewick names it the Great Plover, and others speak of it as the Norfolk Plover and the Stone Curlew. The last mentioned is its oldest name, reference to it as the Stone Curlew occurring in a work published by Christopher Merrett in London in 1667. Seven years later the celebrated John Ray published a Catalogue of English Birds and there the writer states that among some pictures of birds which I have received from the learned and deservedly famous Sit Thomas Browne of Norwich, I find one inscribed 'a stone curlew' from about Thetford, whereabouts they breed. It hath a remarkable eye and note somewhat like a green plover. The drawing of it, which was sent by Sir Thomas to Ray about 1674, was taken from a specimen killed near Thetford. And then, as now, the species was most numerous in the south and south-west parts of Norfolk. The eastern portion of the county compared with the wild open tracts of the 'Breck' district, can at no time have been so attractive to these birds as the 'Breck' district now is. Up to 1846 the species was fairly numerous all over the Eastern Counties; but by 1867 it was getting rare, and as plantations spring up the Stone Curlew, like the ring dotterel, will become still scarcer. The Thetford district is, as it ever has been, the main stronghold of the species, and, while in East Norfolk, it is fast disappearing, there can be no doubt that in the south and west parts of the county, as in similar districts of Suffolk, it will 'enliven the waste in summer for many generations to come'.

As its oldest name implies, this bird delights in a stony soil, and is a lover of fallows, sheep-walks, heaths, and warrens. The bleaker and more sandy the country the better it likes it. 'It spends the day' says Gilbert White, who, next to watching the Swallow, loved to observe the habits of the Stone Curlew, and who is now writing from Hampshire in 1788, 'in high elevated fields and sheep-walks; but seems to descent in the night to streams and meadows, perhaps for water, which its upland haunts do not afford it.' A peculiarity of this bird is its fondness for young plantations. 'The greatest allurement to Stone Curlews' writes Lubbock, 'is an extensive and recently-formed covert in the open country, and on the improved plan of double trenching the soil. The loosened ground affords them better means of obtaining their food, and they appear particularly to delight in the partial concealment which the young trees give in the first year or two. As soon as the trees attain any size all attraction ceases.'

In some seasons the birds arrive here much earlier than usual, soon after the wryneck, and about the same time as the smallest willow wren, ie from the middle of March. Gilbert White speaks of hearing them about the end of February, 1788, and says 'they are the first summer birds that come back'. But there can be no doubt that some of this species occasionally remain with us through the winter, and it was probably some resident birds which the Selborne naturalist heard so early.

With regard to their breeding grounds, the Stone Curlews become attached in an extraordinary manner to the particular spot where they have once deposited their eggs, and will go thither to breed long after the character of the ground has been completed changed, and when, perhaps, thick woods are flourishing where the sandy soil and the bleakness of the region first attracted them. But sooner or later the charm is assuredly broken, and each year added to the growth of the trees lessens the attachment of the birds to the spot.

About the second week in April the female deposits her two eggs on the bare ground, which 'being of a light nature, becomes worn into a shallow depression by the movements of the sitting bird; and so much' says Mr. Stevenson, 'do the general tints of the eggs assimilate to those of the sandy soil around that the novice finds as much difficulty in detecting them, as those of the ring dotterel on a shingly beach'. The pair of eggs are of a pale clay brown, blotched, spotted, and streaked with ash blue and dark brown. But they vary much in disposition and colour of markings, and the varieties are as beautiful as they are numerous. Both parents take part in the duties of incubation, and if you take the first eggs you will continue to find others in a fresh state up to a very later period. I have, myself, found them on Thetford warren in September. Like partridges the young ones run from the egg almost immediately, following their mother about their flinty retreat, and on the slightest alarm hiding amongst the stones, which, as White observes 'are their best security for their feathers are so exactly of the colour of the grey spotted flints that the most exact observer may be deceived'. I should have said that the eggs are generally laid where a good look-out may be kept, and that you will be clever indeed it you surprise the old birds. 'Long before any near approach can be made' says Mr. Stevenson, 'the old bird may be seen to rise slowly to its feet and with arched back, like a French partridge, walk slowly off for a few yards, when, if further pressed, the pace quickens, and joined by its mater, the pair rise on the wing, and with a strong quick flight, their legs outstretched some distance, uttering at intervals their loud, tremulous whistle. As ground breeders they are necessarily exposed to many dangers'. Carrion crows will steal their eggs, and so will rooks in a dry season. But the rook is somewhat afraid of the Curlew, and for the sake of peace carried off the eggs when his victim has left her next, and isn't looking!

These birds feed in the night chiefly, and you will not often come across them in the day-time. In addition to insects, mostly Coleoptera, they feed on snails, slugs, and worms, and their fondness for a chalky soil is explained by the presence therein of small green beetles, which form a great part of their food, and which lie dormant in the day. Like ducks, buzzards, and owls, the Stone Curlew will eat toads, while parts of small mammalia have been found in its stomach on dissection.

Its note, which is a loud shrill whistle, may be heard at all hours of the night, and during moonlight the cries of these birds, in the haunts, are almost perpetual. 'Their short quick note' says White, 'may often be heard in the spring and summer after it grows dark. Their cries are noisy, but birds that fly in the night are obliged to be noisy; for their notes, often repeated, become signals or watchwords to keep them together, that they may not stray or lose each other in the dark'.

Before they leave in October they collect in flocks and in open weather stragglers are seen much later. Than the Stone Curlew no bird has a more beautiful eye, which, large and prominent as it is, shows that the possessor moves and feeds after daylight. A stout frame has this bird, with a large beak. The irises are golden yellow. The chin and throat are white; the neck and breast pale brownish white, streaked with blackish brown; the belly, sides and flanks almost white; the top of head and back of neck pale wood brown, the back pale brown steaked with dark brownish black. The legs and toes are yellow, and the claws almost black. The plumage of male and female is very nearly the same. The whole length of adult male is 17 inches.

William Bilson, Taxidermist, Westgate-street, Bury St Edmunds