First European bird to become extinct for 150 years

A RARE SPECIES of curlew is in grave danger of becoming the first European bird to die out since the great auk more than 150 years ago.

Only nine slender-billed curlews - which breed in Russia and central Asia and winter in places such as the Mediterranean - were seen throughout the world last year.

A smaller cousin of the familiar Eurasian curlew, one of Britain's best- known wetland birds, the slender-billed has for several years been classed as "critically endangered" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

"I suspect that, without a miracle, it will become extinct in the next decade," said Dr Will Cresswell, an Oxford University ornithology lecturer.

"One characteristic of species with very low populations - and in the case of the slender-billed curlew there could be as few as 50 left - is that they bump along for years and then something happens and they vanish for good."

Dr Cresswell joined an expedition last summer which spent 10 weeks searching the Kustani, Petyropavlovsk and Pavlodar regions of Kazakhstan for nesting grounds. Not one was found. In fact, no one has set eyes on a slender- billed curlew's nest since 1924, when one was discovered in Russia.

A big problem for conservationists is the mystery over the bird's movements and the precise whereabouts of its breeding grounds and winter haunts.

The latest edition of Birding World magazine reports sightings of the species last year in only three locations. During April birds turned up at two places in northern Greece, with up to five at Porto Lagos and three on Lake Mitrikou. The only other report was of one in Druridge Bay, Northumberland, in May, which, if accepted by the British Birds Rarities Committee, was the first sighting in the United Kingdom.

The last known regular winter haunt was Merdja Zerga, a large tidal lagoon on the north-west African coast between Tangier and Rabat. But each year the number decreased until there was only one, which left in late February 1995 to begin its long spring migration to Russia's steppes. It did not return in the autumn. The same year, up to 19 were also present at a site in southern Italy up to late March, but they did not return in subsequent winters.

Britain's acknowledged world expert on slender-billed curlews is Adam Gretton, now with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, who has been on three expeditions to Siberia and one to Kazakhstan looking for nesting birds, without success. In 1994, he estimated the population to be between 50 and 270 birds, but their status appears worse now. He said: "Ten years ago there were up to a dozen records a year internationally. But now that it is down to two or three, the situation is very worrying. But there is a ray of hope. There could be birds wintering regularly in places where access is difficult.

"It is possible there could be regular wintering in Algeria, Iraq and Iran, which, because of the political situation, have become no-go areas for people studying birds. However, the situation is improving in Iran so it may be possible before too long for an expedition to go in there to look for possible sites."

Mr Gretton pointed out: "The other problem continues to be finding their breeding territory. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack. It's somewhere on a marshy steppe east of the Ural mountains, but finding a diminishing population in such a vast region is very difficult."

Slender-billed curlews are generally about 20 per cent smaller than their Eurasian cousins and their long, curved bill is more delicate, but superficially they are very similar and can be told apart only through careful examination. This adds to the problem.

Mr Gretton said at least 17 were known to have been killed by hunters over the past 20 years. It was difficult to prevent this happening when they looked so similar to Eurasian curlews, which are a popular target of hunters.

Death Of The

Great Auk

THE great auk, a flightless seabird resembling a very large razorbill, had no defence against human predators and became extinct in 1844 when the last pair were killed on a small island off Iceland. The last one in Britain died on St Kilda, the remote Scottish island group, in 1840. Two islanders beat it to death, believing it to be a witch.

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