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A fairly common wader around muddy shorelines.

Photograph by: 
Peter Orchard

Not that long ago, say ten years, the curlew (Numenius arquata) was quite a common site around the mudflats of Dorset's shoreline but sadly their numbers, like so many species, seem to be declining and there is concern over the future of breeding curlew in Britain. They breed mainly in northern moorland areas in the United Kingdom and further afield it nests in northern Europe and Russia. Until those ten years ago there were occasional breeding attempts in Dorset in some of the boggy heathland areas but that is no longer the case.

With its long, slightly down turned bill it would be easy to think that the curlew is unmistakable but it does pay to take a closer look, especially around migration times, in case you are looking at the similar, but slightly smaller, whimbrel. To my mind, the best thing about the curlew is its wonderful 'burbling' call. It has a haunting quality about it and is evocative of the wild places it inhabits, moorland in summer and estuaries in winter. The curlew is a very sedate wader which is in stark contrast to the apparent endless activity of some of its smaller cousins. The curlew is happy to casually stalk the mud flats looking for ragworm, lugworm and the small molluscs that live deep in the mud, hence its long probing bill. 

Although not a breeding species in Dorset any more curlew can be seen in small numbers throughout the summer months but it is when the autumn migration starts and the winter arrivals start to land that reports pick up, this happens from about week 28 at the end of July. The number of reports then seems fairly consistent through the autumn and winter months but a spell of bad weather further north will see numbers increase but bad weather here in Dorset will see numbers decrease. Once they have problems getting that long bill into the ground they have to move, feeding at low tide on mudflats it is generally not a problem for them but at high tide if normally soft grassy areas become frozen or covered in snow they have no choice but to move on otherwise they will starve.

Curlew can be seen at many points along the Dorset coast particularly at sites within Poole Harbour which is a popular wintering area for them; most reports here come from Arne and Middlebere. They can also be seen in Christchurch harbour and along the Fleet with Ferrybridge being a good location. 

A visit to Arne or the hide at Middlebere should result in a successful attempt to add curlew to your Dorset list.


Common Name Curlew
Scientific Name Numenius arquata
Species Group Birds Sandpipers
Status Occasional
Interest Level
  • 01 - January
  • 02 - February
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
  • 11 - November
  • 12 - December
Look for

Stocky wader with a very long curved bill

Identification Notes
  • Seen throughout the autumn and winter though in less numbers these days
  • Feeding on the mudflats at low tide but in neighbouring saltmarsh and fields at high tide
  • Take a good look at the bill, if it has a distinct bend half way along rather than a gentle curve check out whimbrel
Primary Habitat
Preferred Environment
Look for
Additional Identification Notes
Similar Species

The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Notebook Distribution Map Sites List Some Charts Some Photographs Recent Records Guidance Notes

To see related species click here: 

Birds Sandpipers