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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Shorebirds of the Bolivar Peninsula: Long-billed Curlew, American Avocet and Marbled Godwit

[Bolivar Peninsula, TX. Dec 2015]

The US is blessed with 4 coasts -- the Pacific, Atlantic, Gulf and Arctic coasts in descending length of coastline. However, in winter, richness of shorebird life favors the Pacific and Gulf coasts over the Arctic and Atlantic coasts

On the Gulf Coast, Florida and Texas are both highly sought-after for their spectacular shorebirds and waders. In this post, we profile a recent trip to Bolivar Flats Sanctuary on the Bolivar Peninsula in Galveston County, TX, which illustrates precisely why this hotspot is so renowned for world-class shorebirding.

We start with the largest and most imposing of all our shorebirds -- the incomparable Long-billed Curlew:

"Long-billed" is an adjective mostly applied in a relative sense: Long-billed Thrasher has a bill longer than the Brown Thrasher; similarly, Long-billed Dowitcher exceeds Short-billed Dowitcher in bill dimension. Thus, Long-billed Curlew, while obviously accurate in an absolute sense, must also refer to bill superiority in comparison to the other curlews that were once observed in its company, namely the Eskimo Curlew and the Hudsonian Curlew. The Eskimo Curlew, once one of our most abundant shorebirds has long been shot to extinction and the Hudsonian Curlew, while still around, is no longer recognized as a full species and is now classified as a subspecies of Whimbrel. And, compared to their more modestly sized bills, the Long-billed Curlew's bill, which can be more than 8.5" in length, is awesomely massive.

Sadly, the carnage visited on the Eskimo Curlew has not been restricted to it alone. The Long-billed Curlew which in the mid 1800's was still relatively common on the Atlantic Coast in migration has now been extirpated from its former range. It is now best seen on the West Coast as well as the the Gulf Coast but in thinner numbers.    

A cursory glance at eBird records over the last 10 years shows that checklists on the Florida coast show sightings of one or two individuals. Compare to Texas, in similar fashion to California, where checklists show high counts of up to 30.

Another large shorebird with a similar plumage pattern:

This is the Marbled Godwit -- immediately recognizable from the curlews due its upturned bill.

Also seen were -- American Avocet:

Wintering plovers such as the threatened Piping Plover:

And Snowy Plover:

As well as common sandpipers such as Dunlin:

Western Sandpiper:

And the ubiquitous Sanderling:

Shorebirds face a dual threat -- conversion of their grassland breeding sites to agriculture and disturbance from beachgoers and their pets at their wintering grounds. Thankfully the menace of market hunting which annihilated shorebird populations in the late 1800's is now largely behind us but new threats abound including environmental degradation (eg., Oil Spills) and food depletion (eg., harvesting of horseshoe crab eggs for bait). Yet, sanctuaries like Bolivar Flats still harbor several signature species, including the incomparable Long-billed Curlew, that offer a glimpse of the former abundance of our shorebirds.


Bob Pelkey said...

The Long-billed Curlew is greatly missed this year, Hemant.

France Paulsen said...

I thought you might like to know that the Long-billed Curlew showed up at Bunche Beach yesterday and was reported by late afternoon. I will be heading there tomorrow morning and hope to be able to see it.