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The Norfolk Plover: a study of the Stone-curlew

By Chris Knights

Privately published, 2023

Hbk, 215pp; many colour photographs

ISBN 978-1-3999-5569-0; £29.95

Eurasian Stone-curlews Burhinus oedicnemus are brilliant at hiding, and so relatively few of us see them regularly. I am lucky to live close to where they breed in Hampshire but, even as a volunteer on the RSPB’s Stone-curlew monitoring team, I rarely get to see birds closer than 100 m, so to find a book that is full of close-up images, such as the one depicted on the book’s front cover, feels very special.

No British photographer has spent more time studying Stone-curlews than Chris Knights. He has lived in the Breckland area of Norfolk for most of his life and took his first photograph of a Stone-curlew over 60 years ago. In fact, in 1993, his image of an adult standing tall and challenging an approaching sheep won him third place in BB’s ‘Bird Photographer of the Year’ competition in 1993 (Brit. Birds 86: 247). As a farmer, Knights educated his workers to look out for nests so that they were protected against nearby farming operations. He even paid them for every nest they could find. Alongside his efforts, conservation organisations worked with other farmers in the area to create suitable nesting plots within the busy farming landscape. Gradually over the last 40 years, the numbers in both East Anglia and Wessex have increased, even though in that time their breeding range has contracted.

The opening chapter introduces us to the Breckland habitat and the birds to be found there throughout the year. The remainder is mostly split into the seasons, covering the birds’ early arrival in early spring, through two nesting cycles, autumn flocking and then departure. Photo sequences for individual pairs show aspects of display, nesting and defence. Stone-curlews normally lay two eggs in each clutch, but Knights includes photographs of two clutches of three eggs, and one of four. In each case it is thought that two females used the same nest, although full details of the outcomes are not given. 

There is also a surprising section on wintering, which became a regular occurrence in Norfolk, with up to a dozen birds in most years from 2000 until 2018. That last year saw an anticyclone bring deep snow and two weeks of exceptionally cold weather at the end of February, and it is likely that all of those wintering Stone-curlews perished; there have been no further sightings in winter but, if milder autumn temperatures become the norm, perhaps the habit of wintering will recommence. 

The book closes with a chapter on interactions with people. The future for Stone-curlews depends very much on the co-operation of farmers to adjust their operations to give the birds a better chance of success. In some places that is helped through the creation of government-funded nesting plots, but in Norfolk many birds nest among the fields of sugar beet. This has proved to be an ideal habitat for them, and the existence of nearby pig farms often provides ideal foraging. In my experience, Stone-curlews are opportunistic, and while traditional sites are maintained by regular pairs, others manage to find small areas of temporary habitat and grab a chance at nesting. If they are on land that is managed by a farmer who wants them to win, then their chances of success are so much higher. This book can only help to make farmers feel proud to have these birds nesting alongside them.

Keith Betton


Issue 6
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