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IVORY-BILLS  LiVE???!  ...

=> THE blog devoted to news and commentary on the most iconic bird in American ornithology, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWO)... and... sometimes other schtuff.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011


-- Eskimo Curlew... --


Summer is not a pleasant time to be searching for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but it's a possible time to look for the Eskimo Curlew, another avian ghost. Reuters reports that USFWS is trying to decide on the species' current classification:


And in an older post on this blog Bob Russell listed places that he deemed worth looking for the ESCU:

1. Texas—Louisiana Gulf Coast. It seems reasonable to include the area(s) with the most recent verified report(s) and that would be Galveston Island. Hurricane Gustav recently cleaned off a large portion of the housing on the western portion of the island but left a huge debris field on former pastures and marshland where the 1959-1962 bird or birds were seen (3 birds reported together in 1962). Give this area a couple of years to recover some vegetative cover and try the last week of March and the first half of April, perhaps in association with American Golden-plovers or Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Large concentrations of shorebirds occur at other nearby sites such as the islands in Galveston Bay (Atkinson Island where a flock of 23 birds was reported on 7 May 1981). The Bolivar Flats, although well-watched over the years, is another site that should be checked if you are in the area. Base in Galveston once the motels get repaired. In Louisiana the southwestern portion of the state is frequently birded but most observers hit the usual “chain of pearls” refuges near the coast. There are many areas away from the coast that host tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of shorebirds during spring migration and many of these sites never see a birder all year. Some of these are rice fields in various stages of planting / preparation; others are abandoned or seasonally fallow fields from Crowley west to the state line. Although most birding is done south of I-10, there is extensive habitat in Acadia and Jefferson Davis Parishes north of the I-10. Base out of Jennings, Abbeville, or Lake Charles.

2. Central Nebraska. Historically, most concentrated in York, Fillmore, and Hamilton Counties between the 87th and 98th parallel. Joel Jorgensen, Nebraska Division of State Parks, has documented large flocks of stopover Buff-breasted Sandpipers in York County in spring but has had no sightings of curlews. There is one recent sighting by Craig Faanes (author of Birds of the St. Croix River Valley) in York County in spring which some people reject. Arrives 18-25 April, departing 15-25 May. Frequented open wheat fields and “tame” meadows in later years, originally often found in burnt meadows and prairies. Base in Grand Island, York, or Aurora.

3. Christian County, Illinois / Benton County, Indiana. The largest staging flocks of American Golden-plover known in the world regularly stage from mid-April to mid-May in northwest Indiana and east central Illinois. These plovers were frequent traveling companions of Eskimo Curlew and were one of the few species able to fly as fast and keep up with the curlews. The best way to find flocks of plovers is to peruse a DeLorme Illinois Atlas and find the headwaters of various small tributaries that historically indicated wet prairie areas. The plovers still prefer these oftentimes wet areas even though most are in soybeans nowadays. Check adjacent low wet areas as well. Christian County stands out in Midwest hunting literature as a place of great curlew hunting opportunities! Of course that was 1880 but maybe they’ve recovered—someone ought to check it out. Base in Taylorville or Springfield for Christian County; in Lafayette or Kentland for Benton County. Large wind turbine fields may now threaten many of these plover sites in Benton County. Rather than direct mortality the plovers may just be abandoning these staging areas, perhaps used since the Pleistocene ice sheets retreated.

4. Southeastern South Dakota vic. Yankton. 3-10 May between Ft. Randall and Yankton. Associated here with Upland Sandpipers and American Golden-plovers. Birds once seen commonly as far east as Vermillion on grasslands above Missouri River. There are numerous small sloughs in the area and a fair amount of pastureland. Apparently this was the northernmost major staging area before northern Saskatchewan as the bird was seldom reported from northeastern South Dakota or North Dakota. Base in Yankton.

5. Newfoundland—Labrador. Although the last record was of a pair in 1932, almost every year one or two Canadian birders still visit the former haunts of this species where the species first staged south of its Arctic breeding range, feeding mainly on crowberries. Sites to try include Battle Harbor, Hamilton Inlet entrance (where they normally arrived on 23rd August), Henley Harbor, Indian Tickle, Isle of Ponds, Curlew Harbor, Table Bay, and Gready Island. This is wonderful, wild, remote country. Access by a ferryboat that visits most of these sites with reservations needed a year or more in advance. Getting to these sites once explored by Audubon is a challenge.

6. Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec. Remote, scenic and sophisticated, this chain of islands connected by sandbars and one road annually hosts thousands of shorebirds in fall including Whimbrel and American Golden-plover. Historically, Eskimo Curlews were regular here between 20 August and 6 September although there are no recent records. Area included because it was on a direct passage route for this curlew and still contains large bog areas replete with abundant berry bushes and hundreds of acres of short-cropped fields and some of the largest sandflats and tidal flats in the hemisphere. Very low level of birding activity and relatively easy to reach (by plane from Montreal or ferry from Prince Edward Island). Excellent motels on French portion of this bilingual island chain in Cap-aux-Meules.

7. Miscou Island, New Brunswick. Immense numbers of this species once frequented the coast from Shediac to Dalhousie with the largest flocks often on this small island at the tip of the province. Still largely unspoiled, the island is covered by dozens of small ponds surrounded by dense stands of many species of subarctic berry bushes upon which the birds reportedly fed. The island has hundreds of shorebirds both as foragers and flybys during August and September. During the heyday of Eskimo Curlews, they reportedly arrived often before the 15th of August and remained until about the 15th of September, departing before the Whimbrel departed. Many observers commented that the years of highest curlew abundance also had prevailing strong easterly gales during the fall. A very small motel is present at the base of the island bridge and other motels are nearby along the Acadian coast.

8. Martha’s Vineyard / Nantucket Island / Monomoy Island, Massachusetts. During periods of east winds these offshore islands of Massachusetts often held hundreds of curlews seeking shelter from the storms. Reported from Martha’s Vineyard on 6-7 August 1972 and 30 August 2002 (Gay Head), a report not accepted by the bird committee but which one committee member described as totally convincing. With 2 (yes 2!) recent reports this island may be the place to head to during east winds in autumn if you can afford the overpriced motels.

9. Portsmouth Island—Cape Lookout National Seashore. This is a gem of a shorebird stopover site, a 40-mile+ long island of sand, sandflats, meadows, and islets as remote as any site on the USA east coast and virtually undisturbed. Stay on neighboring Ocracoke Island, itself well worth checking the south end for shorebirds, and hire the local boat shuttle ($25.00) for the short 15-minute ride over to Portsmouth (includes free lecture on natural history and ineptitude of National Park Service) or get an SUV and take a car ferry over to the Core Banks from the mainland (see Cape Lookout National Seashore website) and drive northward. Almost every shorebird species known in eastern USA has been recorded here. Bring lots of bug spray and sunburn oil and be prepared to walk (or drive—4-wheel drive only) miles. Uninhabited except for a few hunting camps and cabins in the now ghost town of Portsmouth. A recent spring report was made by an expert birder in 1972 at Pea Island north of here, one seen with 3 Whimbrels.

10. Prince Edward Island, Canada. This quiet, lightly-birded island of potato fields, spruce forests, and remote beaches would seem like a likely candidate for hiding migrant curlews. I would concentrate on fields on the east side of the island, the shorebird flats at Prince Edward National Park along the north shore at North Rustico, the Malpeque area where once reported to be very common, and the remote northwest corner of the island where I haven’t yet ventured but looks good on Google Earth. 25 August to 28 September. Base in Charlottetown.

Honorable mentions:

11. Cape Henrietta Maria. Ontario. Very remote but tens of thousands of shorebirds pass this site in southbound migration. Access by air and bring a gun for polar bear protection.

12. Mar Chiquita, Argentina Mar Chiquita is located northeast of the province of Cordoba and is the largest inland saline body of water in Argentina covering roughly 6000 square kilometers with a floodable plain embracing another 4,000 square kilometers. As many as 4 Eskimo Curlews have been reported from here in a single flock in recent decades. The size of the area and the number of birds is overwhelming but this may be the single best spot for searching for wintering birds. Base in the city of Santa Fe or camp along the shores.

13. Mingan Islands, Quebec. Off the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, these remote islands are reachable by rented boat or kayak. Many shorebirds stage here in late summer but the islands have been rarely ever birded. This is a major staging area for Red Knots in fall. Check out their website at: http://www.canadianparks.com/quebec/minganp/index.htm

14. Sable Island, Nova Scotia. One requires a scientific permit / reason to visit this national treasure far off the Nova Scotian coast. The breeding home of the Ipswich (Savanna Sparrow) and the most remote place in the Maritimes, one could always fake a shipwreck and bird while waiting for possible rescue. If you don’t get rescued, at least be good enough to leave us a detailed description of the curlew you see as your last lifer before expiring so we can publish it and run it by the records committee. Sable Island is a sand bar - 42 km long and roughly 1.5 km wide - located far offshore, approximately 160 km southeast of Canso, Nova Scotia, the nearest landfall. The island has been the focus of human activities, imagination and speculation for roughly 500 years. Shipwrecks, wild horses, seabirds and seals, and inaccessibility have endowed this narrow wind-swept sliver of sand with a special mystique.

15. Barbados (Graeme Hall Swamp and vicinity). The last specimen of Eskimo Curlew was collected by a hunter on 4 September 1963 near this site. The site was a private hunting club and may be still but I have no recent information on its status or current habitat. Nearby Graeme Hall Swamp ($13.00 entrance fee) has hundreds of acres of protected habitat with numerous shorebirds at low tide. Barbados was a bottleneck for the species, a first resting spot for tired birds departing from Maritime Canada and flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

[p.s. there's actually a small Facebook group dedicated to the search for the ESCU, as well.]
I'm less optimistic than I am about the IBWO, but the 2002 Vineyard report was pretty compelling.
For most Eski Curlews, there is nowhere for the observer to hide. If they report one, it can be checked out pretty easy. No big trees to fly off behind, no wariness hypothesis bull to trot out.

Ever wonder why so few Eski Curlews are reported compared to IBWO?
ESCU has a huge range and relatively few searchers (compared to IBWO) looking for it. Given how many similar species it has (compared to the IBWO only having one confusing species), if lots of searchers looked for it, it would probably be (mistakenly) reported much more often.

...Or, perhaps its rarely reported compared to IBWO, because ESCU is extinct and IBWO is not...perhaps.
Not being a "real" birder (simply a history-type with strong environmentalist tendencies), I first heard of the Eskimo Curlew when I did some research after watching a Nat Geo special on the horrors of locust plagues, particularly in Africa and the Asian subcontinent. I dimly recalled we'd had locusts once in North America--and of course there are local stories here, partly folklorish, about "Mormon crickets"--but I hadn't heard of any in modern times.


In addition to market hunting, one probable factor in the demise of the Eskimo Curlew was the "likely" extinction of the Rocky Mountain Locust; curlews probably fed on grasshopper populations in mountain grasslands during their migrations.

The science isn't entirely conclusive on this insect's extinction since we know there are environmental and genetic "triggers" that cause "ordinary" grasshopper populations to reach plague numbers, but it may well be that farming and ranching in key mountain habitat may have eliminated critical sites where the parent populations bred.

Thus does the extinction of one species interweave with the disappearance of another. And while certainly nobody misses the Rocky Mountain Locust, there's a lesson here nevertheless.
RE: Barbados shorebird hunting - A simple Google search would reveal that this activity continues with severely declining Red Knots amongst the quarry there. To date, all efforts to curb this practice have been futile. Shorebird hunting continues in many latin American countries, but hardly compares to habitat loss on both continents.
I think the USFWS should do an extensive 10-year project with multiple search groups in the field at different times of the year in the best possible areas. I know it would cost a ton of money, but I think that that would be the best way to determine if the Eskimo should be classified as extinct or not. I don't have the money or transportation but if it was provided I would do the extensive field work involved. I think it is out there, perhaps not as likely as IBWO or maybe even BAWA, but I think it deserves a chance.
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