A Curlew’s Plight: Researching one of the Earth’s Best Endurance Athletes

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The fen in Churchill, teeming with nesting shorebirds, including Whimbrel.

Story and photographs by Andy Johnson

A few hours after a rare thunderstorm, the air was still and humid. It was early July in the Canadian subarctic and the fen—a flat expanse of mineral-rich sedge wetland, peppered with dwarf larch and spruce trees—was bursting with new life. Shorebirds—so called for their typically coastal wintering and migratory habitats—return each summer to arctic wetlands and tundra, taking advantage of the vast landscapes’ brief flourish of insect abundance and long summer days to raise their young. So while July brings unbelievably adorable shorebird chicks onto the landscape—hatching in synchronized quartets and immediately setting off to wobble after spiders or other distractions on oversized legs—the windless evenings also bring clouds of mosquitoes. I walked steadily across the spongy, saturated peat, checking the GPS and following its heading: another two kilometers or so, going west. If there had been a breeze at all, my windward side might have been completely clear, while thick, sucking clumps of mosquitoes would be gathered on my leeward side. But still as it was, the incessant buzzing and crawling enveloped me. An impulsive slap over my left shoulder killed more than a couple dozen, not that it helped.

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A small team of us were working in Churchill, Manitoba to track the migrations of Whimbrel, hefty brown-and-white curlews with long bills arcing downward in a parabola that would have pleased Leonardo da Vinci. Shorebirds in general, the curlews among them, are incredible migratory machines. They cover many thousands of miles twice annually to commute between the arctic and the Southern hemisphere, but most impressive is their stamina and pace. Bar-tailed Godwits are the most extreme example, taking off from Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and landing nine days later in New Zealand, after a non-stop, 7200-mile flight over the Pacific. In spring, the godwits return via China and Korea’s Yellow Sea, their sole “stopover.” Many shorebird species follow similar, if less extreme patterns, relying on only a few very specific “stopover” locations to refuel and complete their journeys with enough energy to raise a new generation. With such an “eggs in one basket” approach, migratory shorebirds as a group are some of the most threatened birds in the world, as key stopover sites are pinched in a tightening vice between rampant coastal development and a rising sea. To even begin to protect such far-flung organisms, we have to first get a handle on precisely where they go.

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At dusk, a flock of Whimbrel pass along a California beach during migration.

This was what brought us to Churchill. The eastern Canadian arctic Whimbrel population had never been tracked from the breeding grounds throughout their annual cycle, so there was plenty to be learned about which sites were most critical, and when and how long the Whimbrel relied on each site. Tiny geolocators deployed on the birds’ legs would allow us to parse out the routes and timing of Whimbrel migration, and identify key locations for future conservation planning. But deploying the tracking devices required finding and observing dozens of nests, so I was also keen to photograph and film as much of the birds’ remote breeding life as possible, hoping to capture an aspect of their story that few people have a chance to see or understand.

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Research collaborator Johanna Perz prepares to release a Whimbrel tagged with a geolocator.

Whimbrel have declined sharply in recent decades—down 50% over a 15-year period at one Atlantic stopover—but today, they are the ‘still common’ curlew amongst a group that has dwindled globally. Our North American Eskimo Curlew was one of the most abundant migratory game birds throughout the 1800s, yet became exceedingly rare by the turn of the century, and was extinct by the 1960s. The Slender-billed Curlew from the central Asian steppes and Mediterranean coastlines hasn’t been seen since 2001; the Far Eastern Curlew of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway has declined by more than 80% over three generations, a rate expected to accelerate as tidal flats of the Yellow Sea disappear; and the Steppe Whimbrel of central Asia and east Africa, currently considered a subspecies, has yet to be discovered in any substantial breeding numbers and is rarely seen anywhere. It’s a dire picture globally, yet Whimbrel carry the curve-billed legacy forward with strong numbers. They represent an opportunity to do things differently, to protect habitats and curtail hunting (still legal in parts of the Caribbean) before this curlew, too, is all but gone.

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A Eurasian Curlew flies past wind turbines on the shores of the Yellow Sea in China. Coastal “reclamation” projects (at right) quickly dry out and displace tidal mudflats in favor of industrial real estate.

My rubber boots squelched through the sedge and peat as I approached the Whimbrel nest we had found and marked a week earlier. The eggs were due to hatch that day, so I planned to hide nearby to watch and film before we banded the new chicks. The dwarf larch trees, about my height, began to thin and shorten as I walked, opening the view of this flat, fertile expanse. A Lesser Yellowlegs balanced precariously atop the tallest nearby larch, his bright toes laid across a drooping branch as he called incessantly, signaling my presence to his hidden mate. Within about 100 yards of the nest, the male Whimbrel swept in on still wings and alighted on a raised mound of lichen, peering at me intensely. Another two paces toward the nest provoked his staccato alarm notes, and the female popped up from the nest in flight, landing at a distance and pacing warily.

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We checked the eggs, which were beginning to “pip,” and I backed off to settle under a makeshift blind, thankful for another layer between myself and the mosquitoes. When a threat disappears—such as a raven flying off toward the horizon, or a bipedal ape magically disappearing under a layer of camouflage—the pair quickly settles down, and the on-duty parent paces silently and cautiously back to the nest, a genetic instinct instructing them to duck and weave here and there, just in case they’re still being watched. After all the sly maneuvering back to the hidden nest—a perfect cluster of four, green-brown chicken-sized eggs in an open cup—an apparent glitch in that genetic instinct instructs the returning parent to conspicuously flutter the final yards, landing carefully atop the eggs before settling in: a dead giveaway for any bipedal ape paying attention, and probably a good clue to any ape-brained raven nearby that a meal awaits.

I sat and filmed as the pair settled and returned to the nest, waiting silently for the chicks to appear and fighting the urge to twitch at mosquitoes. Having spent the summer finding and monitoring nests, we had already seen too many broods picked off by the ever-watchful ravens; July carries the suspenseful weight of the previous weeks’ work—for us, the endless trudging and searching, and for the birds, the endless vigil and incubation. But for this nest, the investment was about to pay off. Unnervingly, it was a raven passing by that spooked the adults and first revealed the newly hatched chicks huddled together, causing them to disperse as the adults flushed into pursuit. When shorebirds hatch, the downy young are almost immediately ready to leave the nest in search of food. A watchful parent guards their every move and offers a warm breast under which to huddle every few minutes. The chicks rely on remarkable camouflage to disappear when a raven or other predator scours the area, waiting silent and motionless while their parents harass and distract the intruder. But as shorebirds navigating a human-dominated globe, vulnerability is not something they’ll ever outgrow.

After their chicks can fly, adult Whimbrel head south a few weeks before the juveniles are ready to migrate. Miraculously then, flocks of juveniles will navigate complex and perfectly efficient routes to completely unfamiliar stopover and wintering sites, without any guidance from previous generations. Some shadowy genetic notion of fiddler crabs in Chesapeake Bay and of a warm breeze in Brazilian mangroves draws them, somehow, onward. But for now, and for the rest of their long lives, their only concern is the next step—building fat reserves and growing feathers, a singular focus that will, in a good world, carry curlews long into the future.

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For more information on Curlews check out Andy’s research paper from this project: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jofo.12173/abstract


Andy Johnson is currently working as an Associate Producer in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Multimedia Productions department. He has loved birds since elementary school, but discovered the wide range of opportunities to pursue that passion—both scientific and otherwise—during undergraduate studies at Cornell, where he first encountered video production as a tool for science communication and conservation. He’s looking forward to more opportunities to use media to affect conservation policy, primarily where birds can serve as indicators of ecosystem health and touchpoints for communicating about broad conservation challenges. You can see more of his work on instagram @andyjohnsonphoto or by visiting andyjohnsonphoto.com.

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