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Monday, September 17, 2012

ON THE TRAIL OF THE ESKIMO CURLEW

A male Eskimo Curlew collected at Cape Cod on Sept. 8, 1879
It wasn't supposed to be curlew weather- stifling hot, dead calm, sun glaring through opaque late summer humidity.  And yet, just like that, there it was- a phantom, slipping from a wet swale into surrounding dune grass- just the kind of spot where a century earlier Yankee gunners might have sought it.  It indeed seemed odd that it should slink away like some overhunted, over-persecuted game bird rather than like a typical shorebird that explodes into the air when approached.  It was a medium-sized brown thing, mottled with white, with a longish beak and a striking splash of cinnamon buff visible as it moved off- a glimpse, to be sure, but the cottony buzz filling my head told me I believed I'd actually seen it.  I had been searching for three years, not nearly long or hard enough, I had thought, but just the same there it was.  Wasn't it?

The fact is that Eskimo Curlews have been gone from the collective memories of hunters and birders for so long that it is no longer possible to be sure of what the right conditions for them might have been.  If we can believe fragmentary 19th century reports, curlew weather occurred when fall storms swept off the north Atlantic, carrying with them exhausted birds blown from pelagic routes that led from Labrador to the Argentine pampas.  These were the days that into the 1880s brought flocks of curlews to Cape Cod, Massachusetts large enough to provide sport and meat for the New England market.  A bird at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard, was purchased from the Boston game market as late as 1902.

The standard thinking is that curlews are now extinct or, even if they are not, they are for all intents and purposes functionally extinct.  And finding them?  There is so much continent to look in that the probability of locating them must approach zero.  So, why bother?  Even a flock could come through some godforsaken spot on some improbable day and who would know?  But- that's the point.  We ought to know, and no one is out looking.

Which brings up another issue: in fifty years of observing birds, I've never had to beat away the crowds to perform field studies.  Few are willing to endure the discomfort, drudgery and dogged persistence required of real field work- not a Saturday afternoon of birdwatching, but the real thing.  If someone actually went out and looked and looked hard enough and long enough in a systematic kind of way, might curlews yet be found and might we then be better positioned to do something about their endangerment?  This is certainly not a project for a new graduate student, who must gather analyzable data, or for an up and coming academic who needs to publish prolifically in order to gain tenure.  Still, shouldn't someone be looking?

Despite the negligible effort being directed toward documenting the continued existence of curlews, credible reports appear every few years- including reports from the vicinity of Cape Cod, where I have focused my efforts.  The Cape and its associated islands, jutting into the north Atlantic as they do, were the main stopover spots south of the fall staging grounds on the coast of Labrador, although conjecture has it that birds from a secondary area at James Bay, Canada, also passed directly over southern New England.

With these possible sightings as my impetus, I began my study by inviting the appropriate Federal agencies to connect their name to the project- not because I sought funding or needed help, but because I knew they should be kept abreast of what I was doing.  National Park Service was most accommodating, but Fish and Wildlife Service proved otherwise. With them, a Boston desk biologist informed me that far better than I had studied shorebirds in this region and found nothing, so there was no reason to grant me a permit to survey their lands.  I explained that those far better biologists hadn't been persistent enough or looked in the right places, but to no avail.

I'd heard all this sort of logic before.  Twenty years earlier, I was told categorically by similar all-knowing bureaucrats that another species- the Aguiguan Reed-warbler- was definitely extinct.  Repeated searches by very experienced researchers had confirmed that it had disappeared from the remote, uninhabited Pacific island of Aguiguan, its only home, and it had been gone for the better part of a decade.  Despite all that, I decided to take a small group of college students to the island for a week of floral and faunal investigations.  We found birds in two days.  It was easy- it was a little island and the species was loudly vocal.  So much for those very experienced researchers.  I don't think they understood how to look.

Finding curlews is quite another matter, however.  In this case, the species is anything but conspicuous and  birds have a whole continent to hide in.  But even this sort of Quixotic quest had a parallel in my experience that gave me some hope that the impossible was still possible.  Back at the beginning of the 1970s when I first began studying coastal birds, I was sitting one steamy summer evening at the Old Lyme, Connecticut boat launch when a silver haired gentleman pulled up in his very large car.  He walked directly over and asked, "Have you heard any?" without ever indicating exactly what he meant.  I recognized him immediately as the venerable Roger Tory Peterson, guru of all birdwatchers, although I didn't let on.  I told him I hadn't, but that I had been sitting there every night listening.  He told me he had done much the same for years but had also had no success.  Without saying so, we were talking about the mythical Black Rail, the first nest of which had been discovered nearby a century earlier.  After that time, the species had disappeared from New England as a breeder.  The rest of our conversation has faded from my memory, although I do remember telling him that I intended to keep trying.

Fourteen year later on a dreary, drizzling evening long after everyone had forgotten I was looking, I found Black Rails within yards of where they had first been discovered in the 1870s.  Trial and error, persistence and a little luck had rewarded me.  Shortly afterwards, I found several summer colonies in the wetlands of the Connecticut River.  I had learned how to find them.  So, my thinking has been that Black Rails provide a better model of what it will take to find curlews.  The rails are notoriously secretive, rare and erratically occurring throughout much of their range, so finding them is painfully hard.  Still, they breed in the temperate zone rather than in the vast and inaccessible arctic.  This alone makes them far easier to find than curlews.  I expect gaining definitive curlew evidence will be at least an order of magnitude more difficult than finding evidence for those enigmatic rails.

During my late summer trek along a path through the maddeningly unstable sands of the Cape Cod dunes, I had, however, also encountered several shreds of physical evidence that linked to my glimpsed bird.  The bird had left tracks at the swale edge that I could measure and photograph.  As I had also measured on museum specimens the middle toes of 70 curlews, I could make a comparison.  The middle toe of the track (minus its claw) was a little less than 4 cm.  The museum specimens averaged just under 3 cm.  If we take into account the expansion of track size in sand and the shrinkage and curvature of toes in specimens, then the tracks were likely at least rather similar in size to those of curlews.

Better yet, a bird had left a feather near the same spot on the swale.  Although it was impossible to know with certainty whether it came from the bird I observed, its markings were at first glance promising.  The cinnamon-buffy colors matched the prevailing colors on curlew specimens and the size and barring was quite like that of flank feathers.  A possible difference, however, appeared at the feather tip.  Here it faded to black-and-white.  In my hundreds of curlew photos, I could find nothing that matched this, although it seemed I had seen feathers like this before.  However, without museum specimens in front of me I could'nt make a positive match.  I have since carefully tucked the feather away, and during one or another upcoming museum visits I intend to find out what it is from.

The bottom line is that I may have found something quite remarkable on that hot day but, alas, the evidence remains inconclusive.  Despite that, I fully intend to continue my search.  If it proves to be anything like my rail adventures, I will be well into my 70s if not 80s, assuming I am still breathing, before I have anything resembling success.  Just the same, long after everyone has forgotten I am even looking, just maybe...


The buffy color, size and barring looked right but the black-and-white tip did not appear consistent with coloring on curlew feathers.