When Long-billed Curlews head south for the winter, they don't waste any time. At least that was the case with one female who flew from the prairies of Montana to the warm climes of Mexico in just over a day's time -- nearly 1,250 miles in 27 hours! She's one of thirteen curlews who are leading scientists on a virtual journey from their nests on the grasslands of north-central Montana to their winter homes in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico; with the Conservancy and local ranchers helping to make it possible.
There is something especially haunting in the melancholy call of the Long-billed Curlew – cur-lee, cur-lee, cur-lee. Each spring, this delicate bird with the long curved beak -- the largest shorebird in North America -- flocks to Montana’s prairies to breed and nest. In late-July, they start to leave as quickly as they arrived, headed for their southern wintering grounds. But no one was sure exactly where they went, or how they got there.
"We always knew they would come in the spring and leave again," said rancher Bud Walsh, "but it will be fun to find out where they go next...to learn more about a bird that's been around here since I was a kid."
In the springs of 2009 and 2010, Dr. Nils Warnock of Alaska Audubon and Lee Tibbits of the U.S. Geological Survey battled mud, snow and biting winds in a quest to tag curlews on the Conservancy's 60,000 acre Matador Ranch and surrounding grassland. One thing they hope to learn is how consistently birds that nest on the Matador and surrounding ranches will return. Even though curlew pairs sometimes mate again in consecutive years, they aren't necessarily as faithful to their nesting grounds.
According to Dr. Warnock, “Long-billed Curlews are a regular breeder in Montana’s prairies, yet where these birds winter is still a mystery. Will they winter along the coast of Mexico as a few of the curlews we tagged in Nevada have; will they winter exclusively in agricultural lands as curlews marked in Oregon have; or will they do something completely different? This is a mystery we hope to unlock.”
Data sent back from the solar-powered satellite telemetry tags attached to the birds, will help unravel the mystery. Researchers can now follow their migration routes and stopovers in real time, as well as help define the kind of habitat the curlews need.
Rancher Dale Veseth and his wife Janet gave the team access to a nest site on their lease allotment where two curlews were tagged. Walsh, who's a hand for the Matador grassbank, led them to another nest that he discovered while moving cattle on to the Matador. In fact, most nests were discovered in recently grazed pastures.
According to Walsh, "The herd just sort of separated as they came to a nest. They just walked around it."
Long-billed Curlew numbers crashed in the 1800’s due to hunting. Conservation efforts helped restore the populations, but once again, curlews are in decline. Destruction of their grassland habitat as well as development on their wintering grounds are the main causes, but effective curlew conservation requires more understanding of the movement and habitat needs of these captivating birds.
According to the recent "State of the Birds of the United States" grassland birds are the fastest and most consistently declining group in North America. The loss of so many of these lovely birds is directly tied to the disappearance of grasslands.
The Conservancy in Montana has been a leader in grassland conservation; working with public agencies and private landowners on pioneering conservation that restores and maintains grasslands for birds, at the same time retaining profitable ranch operations.