|Long-billed Curlew (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)|
If there is a voice of wildness on the high plains of
You are out walking through the river breaks or hills in the Missouri Coteau, and the wind suddenly resolves into a low, melancholy whistle that breaks and rises, shifting into a bubbling rapid set of notes that makes you look up to the horizon. And there it is—something big flying in apparent agitation straight at you with its long down-curved bill agape, and you wonder for a moment if it will turn away before it knocks you down. It gives its cry once more and then turns away just before you think to duck.
There is a curlew nest somewhere hidden in the speargrass and, as a large intruder, you are not particularly welcome. But an intimidating nest defence has not been enough to protect
long-billed curlews from declining along with the rest of the birds that depend
on native grassland for survival. Canada
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) lists the long-billed curlew in its “special concern” category, for though its decline has not been as marked as other grassland species, its range has retracted from the north and east and there are some indications that it continues to decline in certain regions.
Here is a COSEWIC management plan for the species, issued in 2013 and listing the following causes: “i) habitat loss and degradation from urban encroachment, cultivation of marginal native habitat and oil and gas development, ii) increased frequency of droughts associated with climate change, and iii) increase in predators associated with habitat fragmentation.”
Habitat matters when you are a bird that needs native grass to nest and
beaches to winter. A recent bird-tracking project initiated on the Gulf Coast
has made it very clear just how much the
long-billed curlew depends on our efforts to hold on to the last pieces of its
habitat north and south. Gulf Coast
The website (thanks to photographer friend Val Mann for the tip!)tracks the movements of eight long-billed curlews that were given geo-locators, Argos Satellite Transmitters, last October as they arrived for winter in the
Christi region of .
It appears that most of them spent much of the winter on a state park called Texas Mustang Island,
one of the few pieces of the
barrier islands that is not shellacked over with housing and resorts. Texas
With the maps on the website, which are regularly updated with new satellite data from the birds’ geolocators, you can see that three of the curlews have made it to the Canadian Plains already. As of this week, one is north of Medicine Hat, Alberta, one is west of North Battleford, and and a third one is on the river breaks along the South Saskatchewan River north of Swift Current.
If you look at the movement of these three birds in recent days you will see that all three are using native grassland, though the two
curlews are travelling back and
forth between cropland and native grassland. In my experience at this time of year
long-billed curlews are sometimes seen foraging in irrigated haylands, but they
almost always make their nests in native grasslands nearby. Saskatchewan
Here are a couple of maps showing the recent movements of the one north of Swift Current, back and forth between native grassland and cultivated land, but it always seems to be returning to one area in the native grass (circled in red in the second map).