Individual, sexual and temporal variation in the winter home range sizes of GPS-tagged Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata

Curlew. Liz Cutting

Author(s): Mander, L., Nicholson, I., Green, R., Dodd, S., Forster, R. & Burton, N.

Published: November 2022  

Journal: Bird Study

Digital Identifier No. (DOI): 10.1080/00063657.2022.2144129

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Widespread declines in breeding performance have caused the IUCN to classify the Curlew as near-threatened. The UK hosts an internationally significant overwintering population, but conservationists fear that impending habitat loss due to sea-level rise will put even greater pressure on this struggling species. Building new intertidal habitat to compensate for these losses is one viable counteraction, but in order to make effective management decisions, we must first understand how Curlew use their winter home range. 

In a collaborative study led by the University of Hull, BTO scientists aimed to find out more by establishing the overwinter home range size (the size of the space used by the birds during winter) of Curlew in the Humber Estuary, North-East England, UK. Curlew visit both estuarine and agricultural habitats during winter, but this study may be the first to examine how this habitat use changes throughout the non-breeding season. As Curlew display sex-differences in bill length which impact foraging technique, this study also wanted to determine if males and females used habitats differently. 

Over the course of four winters, GPS tags were deployed on 18 Curlew from two sites (Welwick Marsh and Long Bank Marsh) on the Humber Estuary. An in-depth analysis of these GPS data allowed the researchers to estimate the home range size of the individual birds and, for the first time in a wader species, infer their behaviour from their movement patterns. These analyses revealed where and how the Curlew were spending their time, both on a daily basis and across the season. 

The study uncovered a number of surprising results. The Curlews’ average home range size was 76.1 ha, which is considered small when compared to other wading species such as Knot and Dunlin. Furthermore, contrary to expectations, a slight decrease in Curlews’ home range size was detected as the winters progressed. These results imply that the high-quality habitats of the Humber Estuary had a plentiful supply of food, meaning the birds were not forced to travel long distances or expand their home ranges in response to resource depletion. Unexpectedly, although the Curlew spent more time resting at night (31% compared to 13% during the day), their nocturnal home range was often larger than their diurnal one.      

Home range characteristics and use also differed between individuals. For example, some birds travelled up to 3.5 km inland to forage on farmland, while others stayed exclusively on tidal mudflats. Contrary to predictions, these differences were not explained by sex. Instead, Curlew foraging behaviours varied between groups of birds wintering at different locations on the estuary. The drivers behind these individual differences remain cryptic, but it is probable that Curlew employ specialised foraging tactics to avoid competing with one another. As conservationists aim to support their survival, they should account for this variety of strategies when maintaining habitat on the Curlews’ behalf.

Although these findings may be site specific, the valuable knowledge that Humber Estuary Curlew maintain relatively small home ranges and employ individualised foraging strategies will inform management responses to sea-level rise and habitat conservation. Crucially, this study also demonstrates there is still much to learn about Curlew habitat use, paving the way for future work.  


Capsule: Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata were faithful to foraging and roosting areas on their coastal wintering grounds, including a habitat creation site. Home range sizes were greater at night than during the day, and showed high inter-individual variability which was not related to sex.
Aims: To examine factors affecting variation in the winter home range size of the largest European wader species: the near-threatened Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata.
Methods: We examined individual, sexual and temporal (day/night, seasonal and annual) variation in the size of the home ranges of 18 GPS tagged Curlews captured at two sites on the Humber Estuary, UK.
Results: Home ranges were small (mean ± SD = 555.5 ± 557.9 ha) and varied slightly in size through the non-breeding season (September–March). We found some annual differences in home range size, and there was some evidence that home range size was greater at night compared to daytime. There was strong inter-individual variation in home range size, which was not related to the species’ sexual size dimorphism and thus potential differences in resource use.
Conclusions: Our results highlight that wintering Curlews on the Humber Estuary maintain small home ranges which vary strongly between individuals. Knowledge of the home range size of wintering waders is vital to inform management responses to the potential impacts of environmental changes such as sea-level rise and improving the efficacy of compensatory habitats.


The study formed part of a PhD studentship undertaken by Lucas Mander at the University of Hull and supported by Humber Wader Ringing Group (HWRG), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the generous contributions made to the BTO’s Curlew Appeal. The study also received financial support from IMMERSE - IMplementing MEasuRes for Sustainable Estuaries, an Interreg project supported by the North Sea Programme of the European Regional Development Fund of the European Union. We would like to thank all ringers and helpers from the Humber Wader Ringing Group (HWRG), Spurn Bird Observatory (SBO) and other ringing groups who participated in the wader captures. The authors thank David Turner and the Humber Nature Partnership (HNP) for initiating and supporting the project, and Matthew Stone at the University of Hull for help with the fieldwork. They received invaluable support from Andrew Gibson at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT) who provided access to capture sites and Tim Page at Natural England (NE) for giving permissions to capture at the sites. The authors thank Lucy Mitchell (University of Hull) and Chris Thaxter (BTO) for providing valuable comments and analytical advice to an earlier version of the manuscript.

A tagged Curlew. Rachel Taylor
Staff Author(s)
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