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North Dakota Game and Fish canvas the Western Edge for a unique bird in ongoing bird habitat study

The long-billed curlew is historically important to North Dakota, Game and Fish Department conservation biologist Sandra Johnson said, noting that the bird was mentioned in Theodore Roosevelt’s personal journals.

Long-Billed Curlew Shorebird Takes Flight
A Long-Billed Curlew Shorebird takes flight
Dickinson Press file photo
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DICKINSON — The Western Edge is known for bird hunting, which can go from quiet and meditative in one moment to heart-thumping and thrilling in the next. But not all who hunt birds do so for sport. Two leading conservation groups and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department have partnered in a bird habitat study in southwestern North Dakota aimed at tracking the migratory movements of long-billed curlews, a conspicuous shorebird.

The study will aid researchers in better understanding migratory patterns and recognizing a little known species’ habitat on the Western Edge.

The NDGFD have funded the study, which will be managed by Boise State University’s Intermountain Bird Observatory and Northern Great Plains Program of American Bird Conservancy. Researchers say they will fit the birds that migrated this spring to North Dakota, in order to breed, with solar-powered tracking devices.

“We’re hoping to be able to find some curlew nests and then be able to trap adult birds and outfit them with satellite or cellular transmitters that can give us data remotely,” Jay Carlisle, research director for Intermountain Bird Observatory, said. “Then we can just be armchair biologists and collect data on their movement throughout the year. The main goal is to get information on habitats and regions that are important to curlews, not just while they're here in North Dakota, but during migration, during the long non-breeding season and then spring migration again.”

Kevin Ellison, program manager for Northern Great Plains Program, acknowledged that the study’s goal will be to fit at least five curlews nesting in North Dakota with transmitters and an additional four to five in South Dakota.

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“Sometimes you can get lucky and get most of it done in two days, or it can take up to nine days or so, depending on the weather,” Ellison admitted. “We have a bunch of local staff and volunteers we can rotate through. American Bird Conservancy employs some local staff based out of NRCS offices, both in Miles City, Mont. and nearby Buffalo, S.D. who are able to come here and help out.”

While the long-billed curlew are North America’s largest shorebird, roughly the size of a sharp-tailed grouse but on stilted legs, finding the birds across wide open prairies can be an effort on par with finding the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack — or in a more accurate descriptor, finding a needle-in-a-stack-of-needles.

The long-billed curlew is historically important to North Dakota, Game and Fish Department conservation biologist Sandra Johnson said, noting that the bird was mentioned in Theodore Roosevelt’s personal journals.

“It’s a bird he observed when he was here in North Dakota, when he spent time on the Elkhorn Ranch, he called it one of the most conspicuous birds. It was a bird he really enjoyed. And it’s a bird that you probably can't find in that Elkhorn Ranch area anymore,” she said. “We still have a good curlew population in North Dakota, but there are places where we're just not finding them. So, that's where the study will really help figure out what's going on with our curlews.”

TRAPPING THE BIRD

The well-hidden nests of the long-billed curlew are often unoccupied, and finding one being incubated by an adult requires researchers to tiptoe in and capture the bird.

The NDGAF say that the highest probability for success requires finding a nest in the early morning or late evening hours when the birds switch from migratory feeding patterns to their role in incubation duties.

Carlisle said he was optimistic, noting that in general males incubate from 6 p.m. until 7:30 or 8 a.m.

“And then the female, who has been off the nest all night, returns to the territory, maybe feeds a little bit and then switches onto the nest. And then the male has the day to feed and be on patrol and then he’ll switch back on in the evening,” he said. “So, we have the most success being on site by sunrise and watching for those first 2 or 3 hours of the day hoping to catch a single female switching with a male onto the nest.”

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Once researchers locate a nest, it’s not just a matter of sneaking up empty handed. Researchers will need to find a way to approach the nests while carrying an 18-meter mist net parallel to the ground while being directed from behind before dropping the net on top of the incubating bird.

“Oftentimes, they actually stay until you approach them and then they'll jump into the net. Sometimes as you're arriving, they’ll flush and you miss them,” Carlisle explained.

Carlisle has personally assisted in capturing more than 100 curlews.

“Then we detangle them as quickly as we can and move usually at least 200 meters from the nest to be able to do all the processing and put a band on the bird, take measurements and then finally put on a satellite transmitter with a harness.”

Researchers in the study describe curlews as a generalist species, meaning that they are not as picky as other species with regard to where they construct their nests — stretching the search area across wide expanses of grasslands, stubble fields, pastures and badlands.

“They're probably looking and responding to fewer conditions than some of the pickier species that we affectionately call ‘Goldilocks’ species that have to have it just right,” Ellison said. “Some of the pickiest species are pipits and longspurs that nest at higher densities in native grass. So, you range from species that are really adaptable and generalist to really specialized. The curlew is a little more on that generalist side.”

Ellison said studying curlews is important in order to understand how they are connected to the ecosystem in southwest North Dakota.

“These birds are great indicators of ecological health. Their position in food chains and their lifespan is pretty short, so they can help us see how healthy our environment is,” he said. “These are working lands here in North Dakota and we're just looking at how we can have all the pieces work together.”

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Carlisle said that while researchers would prefer to get a 50-50 sample size when trapping curlews and outfitting them with tracking devices, in the end it really doesn’t matter.

“I honestly don’t remember how many pairs we’ve tracked now, at least 10, and never have the two individuals migrated to the same wintering site. They always go to different sites, say, at least 50 or 100 miles apart, sometimes many hundreds of miles apart,” Carlisle said. “And, yet somehow they easily find each other again in the spring. It’s like, ‘Oh, hey, it’s you. How was your winter?' And they probably don't need any courtship.”

Johnson expressed her hope that the study will reveal a full lifecycle perspective on a species that lacks such data.

“Long-billed curlews are only in North Dakota for a couple of months during the breeding season and then they migrate to the Texas coast or elsewhere for seven, eight or nine months,” Johnson said. “So, it’s really important to learn more about whether we are all doing our part to make sure that this bird has safe places all along the way.”

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