Bowie the Curlew flees from fire – but has his luck run out?

28 Jul 2022 | No. 2022=29

Scientists from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and University of East Anglia have tracked a Curlew on an amazing journey that recorded his close shave with a huge wildfire in central Portugal. The Portuguese government plans to build an airport on the Tagus Estuary, where Bowie is now, in a move opposed by campaigners. 

Bowie (named after his tag number, B/OW-OY) was fitted with a GPS tag in Norfolk this spring as part of an investigation into the causes of Curlew decline in the UK. He is now on his non-breeding grounds on the Tagus Estuary, an internationally important wetland under threat from controversial plans to build a new airport.

The Tagus Estuary hosts up to 200,000 birds in winter and 300,000 on migration, among them huge numbers of Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit, as well as Greater Flamingos, Glossy Ibises and Purple Swamphens. Data from Bowie’s tag show that he is currently at the centre of the proposed airport site. If the development goes ahead, campaigners say, the combined impacts of habitat destruction and noise pollution will spell disaster for biodiversity in the region and further afield.

Bowie left the UK at nightfall on 14 July, arriving in northern Spain the following lunchtime. From here, his route to the Tagus Estuary set him on a collision course with a huge wildfire burning close to the Portuguese town of Ourém, 140km from Lisbon. As he approached the fire, Bowie made a sharp westward turn and began to gain height. Having cleared this particular obstacle, he arrived at the Tagus estuary in time for breakfast on 16 July.

Although the UK is home to a quarter of the global Curlew breeding population, numbers here have shrunk by half since just 1995. The majority of UK Curlews migrate in a south-westerly direction after breeding. Most end up in Ireland or southern England, while some make it to the Atlantic coasts of France, Spain and Portugal. Bowie will probably spend the winter on the Tagus Estuary before returning to Norfolk next spring.

Dr Samantha Franks, lead scientist on BTO Curlew conservation work, said: ‘Curlew in the UK face habitat loss and predation pressure on their breeding grounds, which severely hamper their ability to successfully raise the next generation of young birds. Bowie’s migration from Norfolk to the Tagus estuary shows that our internationally important population of breeding Curlew also depends on an international network of protected sites. Across Europe, these are under threat from habitat loss, coastal development and climate change.’

Contact Details
Tom Stewart
 (BTO Media Manager)
Mobile: 07585 440910
Email: press [at] (subject: News%20release%20enquiry)

Mike Toms (Head of Communications)
Mobile: 07850 500791
Email: press [at] (subject: News%20release%20enquiry)

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Notes for editors 

BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity
. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Belfast (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations.

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