Hello! Most of my posts take place around San Diego County, (Mostly Lake Murray) unless otherwise noted.
For more posts and photos, I also post on Hubpages, a site that is a bit different than others. Thanks!: Shorebirdie on Hubpages

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Eskimo Curlews

Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Since it's a rainy day and I have just finished watching the After School Special and reading the book "Last of the Curlews", I thought I would write about Eskimo curlews (Numenius borealis).  No, they don't visit California, though I have heard of at least one website stating that they have been seen here.  I don't know when that was as California hadn't been a state for very long when they disappeared.

I wanted to write this because the U.S government is considering removing this bird from the Endangered Species List and declaring it extinct as early as this year, 2012.  Now is the time to submit your sightings if you have any.

A little bit of history:

Back in the mid-1800s, the wild game trade had gotten out of control.  As passenger pigeons began to get fewer and fewer, hunters turned to a small, but very plentiful game bird called an Eskimo curlew.  The bird looked similar to the more plentiful whimbrels that winter here on the California coast.  Like the passenger pigeon, several were slaughtered in one single shot.  Within only 20 years, there were practically no Eskimo curlews left.

By 1905, they were presumed extinct, but since then, sightings of stragglers have been seen now and then.  This was the inspiration for the book "Last of the Curlews" by Fred Bodsworth.  "Last of the Curlews" is a story about one of those stragglers, a lone male in search of a mate.  He hadn't seen another of his kind for at least three years until, one day, a female finds him when he's in South America.  However, it doesn't end well.  I won't spoil the book here.  I have a review on my other site, "A little bird says. . ." if you want to read it.

The Eskimo curlew has a long migration, one of the longest on Earth.  They breed at the edge of North America, usually in the Northwest Territories and have been known to breed in central Alaska.  From there, they fly to Labrador, Nova Scotia and the northern New England coast where they fatten up on berries and invertebrates before crossing over the Atlantic to South America.  They return through the interior, often landing on the gulf coast around Texas and Louisiana and traveling up the great plains of the United States and Canada back to their breeding grounds.  A total of 20,000 miles.

The reason why they never recovered from their over-hunting is that the prairies have changed.  They became farmland and their main food source, the rocky mountain grasshopper became extinct.  The grasshopper was extremely plentiful during the 1800s which may have been the reasons why their flocks grew into great numbers back then.  That and the destruction of many of their predators, hawks, falcons, and eagles.  The curlews also relied on the prairie fires that helped exposed much of the insect life they fed on.

What they look like:

Here is a photo of a specimen mounted in a museum.

Source:  Wikimedia Commons

They look a great deal like their close cousins, the whimbrel, which has now taken up much of the Eskimo curlew's former breeding range.  Here are some key differences:

Eskimo curlew are noticeably smaller
The underside of the Eskimo curlew's primary feathers are solid colored, not barred like a whimbrel
Eskimo curlew are more warm brown/dark cream color while whimbrels are more grayish-brown
The wing lining in the Eskimo curlew is a light cinnamon color
Less distinct eye stripe with the Eskimo curlew
Eskimo curlew have a shorter, thinner bill than a whimbrel
Head markings are generally less pronounced on an Eskimo curlew, but more defined than a Little Curlew (see below)
Eskimo curlew have a lighter, thinner body shape than a whimbrel
Eskimo curlews sometimes have a white or very light patch directly under the chin
Eskimo curlews have dark-colored legs, green, brown or gray-blue, whimbrels have light colored legs, bluish, blackish or gray

There is another bird called the Little curlew which is very similar to the Eskimo curlew and may be their closest relative.  They mostly reside in the Old World, mainly Russia, but have shared the Eskimo curlew's Russian breeding range.  They are extremely uncommon  in the United States, though they have been seen in California and Alaska. It is unlikely that they will be a problem for confusion in North America, but they have to be ruled out before any sighting of an Eskimo curlew is taken seriously.  The differences between the Eskimo curlew and the Little curlew are few, but here is a list of them:

Little curlews have a well-defined eye stripe
Little curlews have light colored legs
Little curlews have a conspicuous, but very light head stripe

Little Curlew, source Wikimedia Commons

Since 1890, sightings have been few and far between. The last physical evidence of an Eskimo curlew was a female that was shot in 1963 in the Barbados area.  The last and only photographs were taken in Galveston in 1962.  The last confirmed sightings were in the 1990s.  However, there have been many unconfirmed sightings in the last 100 years that may have been real.  The problem is that to be able to confirm a sighting, there has to be irrefutable evidence that the bird in question is really what it is.  In the past, it was more easy to confirm sightings because the people reporting them were more likely to have known what an Eskimo curlew looked like because they were around when they were more abundant.  Or, they may be experts on curlews and shorebirds in general.  However, since the last confirmation, the only way a sighting of this bird will be confirmed is with actual physical evidence.  That is a good, irrefutable photograph or the actual bird itself.

I am building a list of sightings, but am still tracking some down.  I have just heard of a sighting in Missouri last year, 2011 of 3 Eskimo curlews.  This is far out of the range of whimbrels and long-billed curlews.  Other recent sightings include one in Argentina in 2006 and one in Nova Scotia in 2007.  There also may be sightings that were not made public or people who have sighted them not knowing what they were seeing or not wanting to make it known.

When and where to be on the lookout for these birds:

January-April:  South America. Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Columbia.  Also, Central America and the Yucatan.  Sometimes Gulf of Mexico, Texas and Louisiana.

April-June:  Gulf coast of Mexico, North America, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.  Possibly the southern plains, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas.  Upper great plains and the southern great plains of Canada.  The Dakotas, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

July-August:  Canada, Northwest Territories, possibly Alaska.  Late summer sometimes seen in Nunavut.

September:  Migration begins in September and may be seen in Quebec and Labrador.  May also include Maine and northern New England in the United States.  Some may also bee seen on Atlantic islands (like the Bermudas), especially when hurricanes are present.

October-December:  South America.  Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Uruguary and Argentina.

Reporting a sighting:

Where to report sightings depends on where you live.  You can usually report your sightings to Fish and Game in your state or nationally.  Or, you can contact an organization or an ornithologist specializing in shorebirds.  Ornithologists can often be found in universities, but many of them have their own organizations or belong to other organizations such as the local Audubon Society.  If you are seeing them in a protected area, you can also contact biologists through the ranger's or warden's offices.  These places can usually put you in touch with your local rare bird record compiler.   Be prepared to defend your sighting because they WILL be doubtful.  You can remain anonymous if you wish to be.

Even if you're not sure, but you're in (or near) the right location for them to be, report it anyway.

Every year people search for these birds.  But, unlike their ancestors, the curlews have learned to fear and avoid human beings at all costs.  Also, because their range is extremely large and their numbers so few, it's like locating a needle in a haystack.

No comments:

Post a Comment