Early Longbill

Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus)

Another early migrant, along with the Marbled Godwits, is this Long-billed Curlew. This one is likely to be a male. Female curlews are bigger and their beaks are even longer.

I used to think that when feeding they spotted some clues on the surface so that when they plunged their beaks into the mud they very likely had something. Unlike the smaller sandpipers, who seem to peck at random. This one proved me wrong. During this one-minute video the bird plunged its beak below the surface about twelve times and came up with nothing. I edited out two more minutes of footage during which the bird plunged about every five seconds and came up with one tiny morsel smaller than a pea. Having a long beak doesn’t mean life is a picnic.

Life has been tough for these birds, historically. They used to be so abundant in San Francisco Bay that Candlestick Point was named after them; “Candlestick bird” was their nickname. They were hunted ruthlessly for their meat. None were left when the stadium was built. This was another case of exterminating the indigenous population and then naming the place after them.

Massive flocks of these curlews used to show up on the Atlantic coast as well. They were hunted to extinction. Here in the west they’ve also declined big time due to the spread of agriculture and suburban development. Like the Burrowing Owls, curlews nest and breed inland. The arid grasslands of the West and the Great Plains are their historic home. Their current much reduced western population is now considered more or less stable and they’re off the endangered list. We tend to think of them as shorebirds because that’s where we see them, but most of the year they’re grassbirds or prairiebirds. Those long beaks evolved to probe in tall grasses for grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, and the like. Maybe they don’t really like plunging their proboscis into mud. Yuck. Still, a bird’s gotta eat.

Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus)

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