Long-billed Curlew

by Dan Weisz

Web presentation by Douglas Everett at Hummingbird Market

We spent a few days in Coronado in order to escape the Tucson heat.  Of course, there was a heat wave in Southern California at the time but it was cool along the beach with fog most mornings.  One of the most fascinating birds in the area were the Long-Billed Curlews.  The couple below were feeding along the bay one morning.  These birds are so unusual looking, and yet graceful and confident in their behavior.  I was fascinated by them and hope you will enjoy the photos of their ‘typical’ morning activities.

The Long-billed Curlew is the largest member of the sandpiper family with a body length of about two feet (put two pieces of copy paper end-to-end to imagine that) and its long bill of up to 8 inches (the width of that paper).  Its long down-curved bill and long legs are physical adaptations that make it identifiable as a shorebird.

Most shorebirds are associated strictly with wetland or coastal environments.  However, the curlew is also at home on grassland prairies.  In the photo above, it was foraging in the thick succulents.  Below, it is running along the shore at the edge of the waves.  It will eat food found in either habitat.

Long-billed Curlews are opportunistic feeders consuming available food items by probing its bill in the mud and in animal burrows.  In coastal areas, they will probe in the mud for shellfish, crabs, and other invertebrates.  When inland, they will eat mostly insects and any other edible items they find.  Imagine how deep that long bill is buried in the sand below.

One of the Long-billed Curlews made quite a racket often, trying to get the other one’s attention.  Although it seems to be very happy or satisfied below, I really don’t know what it was thinking.  You can see how its bill has a droplet-shape at its tip.  The bill is dark but fades to flesh tone at its base.

Here is one way to scratch your head, while standing on one leg.  Don’t try this at home.

The Long-billed Curlew has a speckled brown back and wings to go along with a buff-colored belly and breast.

When it rests, it tucks that bill under its feathers.  It’s hard to imagine that lengthy bill fitting there but it does.

As a hunter, the bird is very quick, agile, and smooth.  Here it was running towards what it hoped was prey.  You can see its clear focus while it races in an attack mode.

On the lookout!  Its tail feathers look beautiful and that long bill really stands out in profile.  The Long-billed Curlew was once common along the Great Plains and in the eastern United States.  In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, these and other shorebirds were hunted in large numbers as game, both for their feathers and for their meat.  By the time they were protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, much of their crucial breeding habitat had been destroyed for agriculture.  While populations never recovered in the eastern and central United States, they remain fairly common in the western United States.

Scratching that itch!

Probing for food again.  This went on throughout the hour I watched these two birds.

Strolling over the shells along the shore, this bird just looked so confident.  It was a treat to observe them