Masters of Deception

Photo by Jeff Keay

Island Park News, April 25, 2019, Volume 23, Issue 10, p10.

Day after day I scrutinized long-billed curlews’ return to their nesting ground and stood dumbfounded as they suddenly vanished. Averaging 2.2 pounds, they are the largest shorebird in north America. They probe sand and mud with their extremely long, decurved bill, but during the nesting season in Idaho they pick worms near the surface of the ground. They nest in short-grass prairies and every morning and evening for 4 weeks they execute a shift-change with their mate, each taking a 12-hour incubating session. Every morning the female flies into the meadow on strong, sickle-shaped wings announcing her presence with loud plaintiff calls. Often she’ll circle the meadow, likely looking for predators, and then land, standing tall and conspicuous in the short grasses or even atop a small mound. Then, in an instant, she’ll disappear without a trace.

Admittedly, their mottled brown feathers blend perfectly with the varied browns and tans of early spring meadows. But their boisterous arrival and large size make them obvious to all within 100 yards. Yet the cautious nest exchange occurs unnoticed by watchful ravens, gulls, coyotes, foxes, and skunks and in the absence of tall concealment cover. Early one cold spring morning I finally cracked the code and discovered their magical mystery.

A cold wind blew from the north, on the heavily overcast morning of May 18, 2018. Dawn was still breaking when I heard the mournful flight call of a female long-billed curlew. I picked her up in my binoculars and watched as she circled the meadow then stooped on a male northern harrier and chased him out of the area. Upon her return she circled again and landed in the short grasses about 75 yards in front of me. Switching to my spotting scope I squinted and stared, determined not to miss a single moment of the nest exchange. She stood perfectly straight, head up, neck stretched tall, facing north-northwest. For the next 23 minutes she stood motionless except for very minute tilting of her head. I suspect her wide-set eyes could see almost 360 degrees as she stood watching for signs of danger.

I pulled the earflaps down on my winter hat to protect me from the penetrating wind. Eyes tired from squinting through the spotting scope I shifted to binoculars. During the next five minutes she bent over twice touching her bill to the ground, I presumed to feed. Arms tired from holding binoculars I shifted back to the spotting scope. I wondered if she would ever move. At 28 minutes she lowered herself into a crouching position for one minute then resumed her tall stance. Thirty-one minutes after landing she finally took a few steps forward and a minute later flew a short 15 yards to the south and landed again. After a few more minutes of standing, watching, and taking a few steps, the previously unseen male flew from nearby. The watchful female stood still for another minute then slowly slipped into the location that the male had just vacated. She crouched onto the nest and her motionless body vanished in the short meadow grasses. Only her long bill belied her presence on the nest, and only if one knew precisely where it was.

On subsequent visits I watched coyotes wander through the curlew nesting ground seemingly unaware of the abundance of birds and eggs that could have been an easy meal. I also watched northern harriers glide low over the same area obviously searching for food but not detecting the cryptically colored and motionless guardians of the nests. The numerous ravens and gulls, famous nest robbers, similarly paid no attention to the acres and acres of meadow that housed dozens of nesting long-billed curlews. Twice a day, week after week for 28 days the adult curlews performed their magical disappearing act to protect their precious secret.

Long-billed curlews, that spend their summer near my home in southeast Idaho, spend the winter along the Gulf of California, in Mexico. It takes them two days to fly to their summer range, usually arriving about three weeks into April. Incubation begins about three weeks later, after snow has left but before grasses start to green; it lasts almost a month. After the chicks hatch, the female herds and protects them for a few weeks, while the male journeys south. During early July mom heads back to Mexico leaving the chicks to fend for themselves. The chicks migrate south on their own later that summer.

Nuturing Nugget:
The long-billed curlew taught me the importance of patience and being present. My wife calls that ‘being in the moment,’ being aware and attentive to what’s going on around you. To successfully make the secretive nest exchange, the arriving bird had to make absolutely certain that no predators noticed the swap. Standing tall and still for a full half hour, she deflected attention from herself. And she couldn’t be distracted from her critical mission of watching for predators, absolute, 100% focus, every day for 28 long days. Her mate, also had to have complete confidence in her, and be alert to the proper time for his departure. Sometimes I become so focused on what I am doing or thinking, that I mentally disconnect from my surroundings. That becomes obviously dangerous when driving a car or working with power tools. Perhaps less immediately dangerous, but more important in the long term, is the need to be in the moment with family. The brief time we have together demands focused attention, concern, and assistance, knowing what family members have experienced or feel.