Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Curlews, shorebirds of the prairie "sea"

Driving home from Denver on a classic Rocky Mountain spring day last Saturday, Richard and I left ice fog and sleet behind us as we topped Kenosha Pass, and dropped into bright sunshine in South Park (the real one, a high bowl of a valley stretching for miles in the mountains of south-central Colorado). I had just put on my sunglasses when he pointed at a group of birds near the highway.

Six shorebirds big as pheasants balanced on skinny, gray-blue legs probing the winter-dry grass with outrageously long, down-curved bills like surrealist darning needles. The mottled brown and tan feathers of their backs blended perfectly with the light and shadow patterns of the prairie, and their buff-colored bellies held a hint of cinnamon.

"Long-billed curlews!"

I swiveled to keep them in view as we whizzed past. I thought about asking Richard to turn around, but they were so close to the road I was afraid we'd scare them off.

Long-billed curlews are North America's largest and one of our rarest shorebirds. They're named for those improbable curving bills (eight inches long, fully a third of the bird's total length) and for the sound of their call, a drawn-out whistle that goes up at the end, and which echoes over shortgrass prairies and sagebrush-grasslands in summer: "cur-lew! cur-lew!"

They are considered shorebirds for their winter habitat, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But the shore where they spend their summers is metaphoric: they nest in the "seas" of sagebrush and prairie that make up the western Great Plains from Texas to Alberta, and the Great Basin from Nevada to British Columbia. Their migrating flocks once darkened the skies over the prairies by the hundreds of thousands. But market hunting in the 1800s slashed their numbers, and breaking the sod for farm fields ate up their nesting habitat. Loss of habitat to agriculture, development, and cheat-grass fueled fires continues to threaten their survival.

Seeing the long-billed curlews along the side of Highway 285 the other day lifted my spirits like a visit from friends long thought lost. Knowing that curlews still migrate through these landscapes and that their calls still echo over the shortgrass and sagebrush seas gives me hope for the future - theirs and ours - on this, the only animate planet we know.


Last night I woke to the whooshing waves of chinook winds, followed by a downpour of rain, then sleet pinging on the metal roof, and finally big wet flakes of snow. The apricot and plum trees in my neighborhood are blooming and the bluebirds have returned, their backs as bright as chips of sky fallen to earth. It's clearly spring in the Rockies!

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