By Jean Bjerke
Long Billed Curlews are funny-looking, fascinating birds. They are seasonal summer residents of Island Park, flying 2,000 miles round trip from northern Mexico to spend three months here to breed.It is easy to identify curlews because of their fairly large size, up to two feet long with a wingspan of nearly three feet, and their dramatic down-curved bill which is almost as long as their body. They are cool-looking birds.
Curlews like to nest on the ground in short grass prairie and pastures. Ranchers in Island Park see curlews in their fields. You can also see them at The Nature Conservancy’s Flat Ranch Preserve. They often nest near cow patties – maybe for camouflage because from the air a predator might think the nest looks like another cow patty.
The numbers of curlews are declining throughout their range and the largest known breeding population, in southwest Idaho, has declined 90% in the last thirty years, with only about 200 individuals remaining. Island Park has another significant breeding population. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the species “highly imperiled.”
The birds’ decline is mostly due to human activity including loss and degradation of habitat – there are not nearly as many nesting areas as there were a few decades ago. Illegal off-road vehicle traffic through some of their nesting areas elsewhere in Idaho, and illegal shooting have also taken a toll.
How do we know where these birds go in winter? Scientists were concerned they didn’t know enough about that question to help the remaining birds. So, satellite transmitters have been attached to breeding birds in eastern Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, to track their movements over the last several years. You can read about the satellite transmitter project, and even track individual birds with transmitters, on the Boise State Intermountain Bird Observatory website at www.boisestate.edu/ibo/curlews.
Several organizations have partnered on the satellite transmitter project, including Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Intermountain Bird Observatory, The Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management and numerous local volunteers from the Idaho Master Naturalists.
I hope long-billed curlews continue to come to Island Park forever. They are wonderful birds and a sign of a healthy environment, as it was originally created. So many species of wildlife are gravely threatened due to human activity. We have a responsibility to learn more about them, about the threats to their existence, and to protect the birds and their few remaining breeding grounds as best we can.
Jean Bjerke and her husband Randy have been Island Park homeowners for more than twenty years. She is President of Henrys Fork Wildlife Alliance.