The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Long-billed Long-billed Curlew
by Ro Wauer

Some Victoria residents know it best by its springtime appearance on the lawns at Victoria College across Red River Street from Citizens Hospital. That is when a small flock of long-billed curlew migrants usually appear, remain for a few weeks, and then disappear until the following spring. Those individuals likely move northwest to their breeding grounds in the northern Intermountain West and northern prairies. Some individuals nest in the northwestern Texas Panhandle, rarely along the upper Gulf Coast, and there are even historical nesting records in Jeff Davis and Cameron counties. Plus, non-breeding birds sometimes are found year-round within their Texas wintering grounds, principally on the coastal prairies.

Long-billed curlews can hardly be misidentified. To start with, this is a large, long-legged bird, more than twice the size of a killdeer. Its plumage is mottled brown to buff, and with cinnamon-buff wing linings that are easily see in flight. But its most noticeable feature is its very long, slightly down curved bill. The similar whimbrel, also a curlew that can occur in the Golden Crescent during migration, has a much shorter bill and a boldly striped head pattern. Long-billed curlews also have a rather loud, clear and musical call, an ascending "curr-lee," thus their name.

Curlews are classified as shorebirds, and yet they are more common on prairie habitats rather than along the seashore, where they feed on a wide variety of prey. That can range from insects to spiders, worms, numerous burrow-dwelling crustaceans, small snakes, frogs and toads, and even an occasional bird and their eggs. Because of their extremely long, slightly curved bill, they can reach deep into burrows for prey.

Long-billed curlews usually are wary birds that will fly or run away when approached. However, in cases where they become accustomed to people, they can adjust to some traffic and allow a much closer approach. Their flight is usually swift although somewhat erratic, and when landing they will run a few feet and then they will momentarily hold their wings high over their head before settling down and continue their search for prey. At night they usually will leave their feeding grounds and fly to roosting grounds where they gather together in small flocks.

Breeding birds utilize an unusually courtship by fluttering high into the air and then gliding down while calling loudly. On the ground, according to Kent Rylander's book, The Behavior of Texas Birds, "their displays include ritualized nest-scraping movements." Nests, often in loose colonies in moist or dry grassy areas, are placed on the ground and lined with grasses. "Two females occasionally lay eggs in the same nest," according to Rylander. He also points out that "Although males join together to mob approaching intruders vigorously, incubating bird hold their ground so tenaciously that an intruder can approach them very closely. To conceal their presence, incubating birds stretch their heads out of the grass."

Long-billed curlews are fascinating birds for a number of reasons. They are worth watching on the college lawn, as well as on their more typical short grassland habitats. Enjoy!

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