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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Our Largest Shorebird: The Long-Billed Curlew

Recently downlisted to "Least Concern", the Long-billed curlew has made a remarkable comeback after being shot to extirpation in many parts of the US. This curlew is an awesome shorebird -- tall, endowed with a huge, sickle-like bill, and colorfully distinctive in its cinnamon plumage.

This huge shorebird was seen in October at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary (a world renown hotspot in Texas). Fresh from its alternate plumage, the cinnamon hues in the plumage are still prominent.

Farley Mowat's "Sea of Slaughter" (copyright Stackpole Books 2004) eloquently describes the wanton destruction of the curlews in North America in the 1800's (with devastating consequences for the now extinct Eskimo Curlew):

Most abundant of the three curlews found in eastern North America was the Eskimo, but the most individually impressive was the sicklebird, now known as the long-billed curlew. Although its major breeding grounds were on the western prairies, it migrated along the Atlantic coastal flyway in considerable numbers.

Standing two feet tall on pipe-stem legs, it swung a curving bill six inches in length. its great size and piercing cries gave it pride of place among the shorebird kind. Unfortunately, these very characteristics, plus the fact that it was excellent eating, made it a prime target as a pot bird. Although in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it seems still to have been an abundant migrant from the Gulf of St. Lawrence region south along the coast to Florida, by the eighteenth century it had become scarce and by the latter part of the nineteenth century it had been virtually eliminated from eastern North America.

At Bolivar Flats, I was happy to see two curlews where they are reliably seen. However, In Southwest Florida's premier shorebird hotspot "Bunche Beach", they are regular but certainly not common.

The curlew's bill can measure up to eight and a half inches and is perfect for digging out crabs and other critters buried in the sand. In it's breeding grounds, it prefers insects and worms. The long-billed curlew has the longest bill of any shorebird (except perhaps that of the larger Far Eastern Curlew).

This delightful shorebird is the star attraction of the mud flats and its narrow escape from the same fate as that of the eskimo curlew is cause for great celebration among conservationists and birders alike.


Bob Pelkey said...

The Long-billed Curlew is one of my favorite species to photograph. It is such an unusual looking beast indeed. It was my great fortune to visit Bunche Beach Preserve for four consecutive days this past week, but the curlew remained absent from my view. Others were looking for it as well, with their success in finding the bird unknown. The equally exciting American Avocet was observed on a particular morning tolerating Laughing Gull that overflew it within inches on a couple of occasions.

Digital Plume Hunter said...

Sorry to have missed out on the Avocet at Bunche; I did see a few in TX and hope to see them in SW FL soon.