Rare, eerie bird returns to Bendigo bushland

BACK TO OLD HAUNTS: Four 11-month-old bush stone curlew chicks which are recent arrivals to the Bendigo-based breeding program. Pictures: DARREN HOWE
BACK TO OLD HAUNTS: Four 11-month-old bush stone curlew chicks which are recent arrivals to the Bendigo-based breeding program. Pictures: DARREN HOWE

It’s call has been likened to the wailing of children and screams for help – but the eerie night-time cry of the curlew has disappeared from the bush surrounding Bendigo.

The once common bush-stone curlew is now listed as endangered in Victoria. And Judy Crocker – who is spearheading local efforts to save the secretive bird – estimates there may be as few as two breeding pairs in the area.

"They're just about gone, in other words," Ms Crocker said. 

So too their ancient foes – tuans and quolls – marsupial predators once abundant in central Victoria. 

“Everything is disappearing and, because all these animals come out at night, people haven’t noticed that they've gone,” Ms Crocker said.

But the Lockwood South landcare volunteer is coordinating efforts to bring back those creatures of the night and the ‘Save our Bush Stone Curlew’ project is her flagship campaign. 

She’s trying to convince local landowners to house breeding curlew pairs in enclosures on their properties. From there, the plan is to release their offspring back into the bushland surrounding Bendigo. 

The campaign will take a major step forward this month with the arrival of a curlew couple onto the property of sheep farmer Ken Laing. 

Originally from Toronto, Mr Laing has run his 10-hectare Lockwood station for a decade. He’s heard the cry of the curlew on an app on his phone – though never in the wild. 

But the Canadian recalls vividly the equivalent to the cry of the curlew in his homeland – the wail of the common loon, or ‘loonie’. 

“The loonie’s got this really high-pitched, crazy sort of laughing sound, it's very unique and well-known in Canada,” Mr Laing said.

“When I was younger my father took us on camping trips and when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you hear this mad laughter coming across the water in the night-time...it’s a very memorable sort of thing.

“And the curlew sound is very similar – it’s a high-pitched, slightly crazy-sounding cackle and it reminds me of the wilderness and of wildlife.

“So for me, hearing the sound of the curlew in the wild...it would be fantastic to reestablish that here.”

The arrival of the new birds will be the third breeding pair for the ‘Save our Bush Stone Curlew’ project. 

Jenny Steele’s property is home to the first pair – and she recently received four zoo-bred chicks which will be reared and paired with more curlews. 

For her the project is part of a “bigger plan” to convince landowners to do more to prevent native wildlife from disappearing. 

“It’s the thin edge of the wedge for me,” Ms Steele said. 

“I hope people will see the curlew and they’ll be interested in them and ask, ‘why haven’t we seen them’ and then you'll get farmers say ‘30 years ago I did see them, but I never see them now.

“So the curlew is part of a bigger plan to get people to think about what they’re doing on their properties, like clearing every bit of wood, like not keeping their cats in, like not keeping the fox population under control and not controlling their dogs.”

Ms Crocker put it more succinctly. 

“The curlews are an icon,” she said.

Ms Crocker is also concise when asked why her iconic bird is disappearing. 

“Foxes,” is her one-word response.  

When frightened, curlews freeze, and the gangling legs, elongated necks and fawn-coloured feathers that give them such a distinctive and strange appearance – for all the world – morph into the sticks and the fallen leaves of the underbrush. 

“You can stand right beside their enclosure and not know they’re there,” Ms Crocker said. 

But the very defence mechanism which served them well for untold centuries, leaves curlews sitting ducks for the predators which Europeans have unleashed on the bush.  

Then there is habitat loss. Curlews forage for insects, they need fallen timber for both shelter and food. 

“Curlews like things messy,” Ms Crocker said.

“They need woodlands in prime condition and if we can create the conditions for curlews to survive, then most of the other native species can survive there too.”

Which is the second aim of the program – to create safe havens for the curlews to survive in once they have been bred and released into the wild. 

The group has already created five safe nesting areas in the Shelbourne Nature Conservation Reserve, some 15 kilometres west of Bendigo. There they have also thinned and restored the woodlands to create suitable habitats for the foraging birds.

These fenced areas of up to eight hectares will provide a sanctuary for the wild birds, Ms Crocker said. 

“They’ve already proven in New South Wales – which has led a lot of the curlew recovery efforts – that the birds will fly into these areas to breed,” she said. 

And they plan on building more enclosures – if they can raise the funds. 

Money for the enclosure and birds on the Laing farm came via a federal grant, but Ms Crocker said more funding and donations would be needed for the project to realise its ultimate goal, returning a viable population of wild curlews to the Bendigo area.

She estimates food for the six breeding birds – “dog loaf, hard-boiled eggs, shell-and-all, and special insectivore formula – will cost $1000 every year. 

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

“The enclosures need monitoring cameras, we’ll need a lot of monitoring equipment to be allowed to release the curlews, we need permits and we licenses,” Ms Crocker said. 

“If we want to stop the curlew from disappearing it will cost money.”