Three years ago, while working in the expansive grasslands between Malta and the Missouri Breaks, an old rancher pulled up beside our bird research team, curious to know what we were up to. I would have been curious too: the sight of a small fleet of pickup trucks parked on the shoulder of a remote two-track in the early evening, miles away from the nearest ranch house, and a handful of people slowly creeping through the grassland nearby would have been unusual, to say the least. When we told the old-timer we were searching for Long-billed Curlews, his suspecting demeanor instantly changed and his eyes lit up. “Oh, I see them all over the place! They hang out in the pasture next to my house, make a lot of noise when I drive by”. He asked a few curlew-related questions and was happy to offer information about recent sightings in the area. It was a pleasant encounter, and we appreciated the rancher’s excitement and curiosity.
Not too many other bird species would elicit such a reaction from the public. The Long-billed Curlew is the largest shorebird in North America, and a familiar summer resident throughout our eastern Montana grassland plains, breaks and rolling hills. Most of our broad western MT valleys are also home to this grassland specialist, but populations west of the divide are generally smaller and more isolated. As opposed to many of Montana’s other grassland species, the Long-billed Curlew can be easily identified, even from a great distance, by sight and sound. Curlews usually forage out in the open, where their size and shape often makes them unmistakable. They have a football-shaped body, long legs and neck, an extremely long, slender down curved beak, and an overall buffy-brown plumage (especially when seen from afar) with cinnamon-colored underwings. Their familiar “CURLEE” wail can be heard from a mile away in the open grasslands. Even non-birders are drawn to charismatic species they can readily recognize, making the Long-billed Curlew a good ambassador for grassland conservation.
The Long-billed Curlew is a species of concern in Montana because the grasslands they depend upon are dwindling- albeit slowly when compared to other regions – mainly due to residential development and the conversion of grasslands to croplands. Curlews are facing similar challenges across much of the northern Great Plains and the Intermountain West, and several organizations in the region such as Montana Audubon, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Idaho Bird Observatory (IBO) and the Montana Natural Heritage Program, amongst others, have been carrying out long-term studies to better understand this species’ population and distribution trends, migratory behavior and requirements, and important ecological relationships. The following few paragraphs will briefly highlight some of the ongoing Long-billed Curlew studies and conservation efforts being carried out in Montana and the Intermountain West.
Since 2019, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, IBO, American Prairie and the University of Oklahoma Aeroecology Group have partnered to study life history and movement behavior of Long-billed Curlews in central Montana. A significant part of the project involves real-time monitoring of curlews on their breeding and wintering grounds, and along their migration routes, using advanced, tiny GPS tracking devices (“tags”) that are carefully attached to their backs. These tags collect GPS points with the same accuracy a mobile phone has when used for navigation, and provide researchers with an immense amount of fascinating, invaluable data about the birds’ movement and “in-flight behavior.” In addition to periodically recording the curlews’ pinpoint location, the tags also measure acceleration, which helps researchers identify different types of movement such as flying, foraging and resting. The GPS tags provide researchers with incredible insights into Long-billed Curlews lives and illuminate the daily needs and challenges these birds face at every stage of their life cycle. This in turn will allow us to focus and optimize Long-billed Curlew conservation efforts where they are most needed and useful. When these studies’ data are analyzed, we hope to be able to see exactly where the curlews spending summer in Montana head to for their longer migratory and winter seasons.
As many readers know, since 2014, Montana Audubon has been spearheading a Long-billed Curlew citizen science survey effort in the Helena, Blackfoot and Mission Valleys. These 3 western Montana valleys were chosen for long-term monitoring because they were known to have good habitat with significant curlew populations that were potentially vulnerable to development. One of the primary goals of these surveys was to locate and monitor hotspots to help guide conservation priorities in these rapidly changing regions.
The 3 valleys have multiple driving survey routes: 25 in the Mission Valley, 7 in the Blackfoot Valley and 26 in the Helena Valley. Each survey route has at least 10 permanent survey points. Our dedicated team of volunteers has detected curlews at the majority of the survey routes over the years, and while we have not yet summarized the results from the past couple of years, previous survey seasons have yielded an average of slightly more than 1 bird per route. We are continuing with the survey efforts in 2023, and are looking for interested volunteers for the upcoming spring survey season!
If we wish to know as much as possible about curlew populations and distribution in Montana, we cannot just rely on the wonderful research carried out by the mentioned organizations. Such in-depth research is critical for understanding the needs and daily challenges faced by curlews, but is typically carried out on relatively small scales when compared to the vast breeding range of curlews in our state. To keep track of overall population trends in the state we need to compile, process and analyze as many curlew observations as possible from all parts of Montana. The Montana Natural Heritage Program (MTNHP) is the organization responsible for this.
The vast majority of Long-billed Curlew observation data (and all animal and plant observations for that matter!) end up in the MTNHP database, where it is processed and converted into useful data products. One such product is Predicted Habitat Suitability Models. Basically, by knowing what type of habitat is present at each of the thousands of Long-billed Curlew observation locations in MT, we can figure out what habitat is most important for the species and where such habitat is present in the state, which is critical for informed management and conservation efforts. Montana Audubon, for example, used the Long-billed Curlew predicted habitat suitability model generated by the MTNHP to determine where to place our curlew survey routes.
The more curlew observations we have, the better our understanding of curlew habitat requirements and population trends will become. That is why in the last few years the MTNHP has partnered with eBird, the largest database of bird observations in the world, to periodically obtain all bird observations reported by hundreds of bird enthusiasts in MT and add them to the MTNHP database, keeping it as up-to-date as possible. Prior to the partnership with eBird, the MTNHP tracked just over 4,600 Long-billed Curlew observations going all the way back to 1875. In the last 8 years since the data sharing partnership with eBird has begun, the MTNHP has received a staggering 6,700 new Long-billed Curlew observations, giving us a much-refined window into the state of curlew populations in MT, and more accurate models that will greatly help us with future curlew management and conservation efforts.
So what can you do to help with Long-billed Curlew conservation in Montana? As mentioned, Montana Audubon is looking for volunteers to help monitor our existing survey routes, especially in the Mission and Helena Valleys. We are asking volunteers to carry out two driving surveys between April 8 and May 31, each survey usually requires about 2.5 to 3 hours to complete. If you would like to sign up or want more information, please contact Peter Dudley ([email protected]) or Cassidy Dinkle ([email protected]).
Keep an eye out for these remarkable birds, Long-billed Curlews will be returning to spend the summer with us starting around the end of March!