Long-billed curlew on the move


A long–billed curlew that was fitted with a satellite transmitter on May 27 at the National Elk Refuge has already made her way to Mexico.

Checking the weather, social media sites, or online news is often the first task people do after turning on their computers or mobile devices each day. For several biologists in Jackson, Wyoming and the Intermountain Bird Observatory in Boise, Idaho, they anxiously check on the status of “AJ,” a long–billed curlew that was fitted with a satellite transmitter on May 27 at the National Elk Refuge.

Since receiving her transmitter, the curlew has hatched her eggs, left the young with her male partner, and headed south. Her behavior is typical: females usually abandon their brood two to three weeks after they’ve hatched, leaving their mate to care for the young. After a notable stopover in Utah, she is currently on Mexico's west coast, approximately 100 miles south of Mazatlan. 

Long–billed curlews are North America’s largest shorebird, recognizable by their distinctive long, curved bill. Though they spend their winters on southern coasts and the interior of Mexico, they breed in grasslands of the prairies and Intermountain West. 

Long–billed curlews are listed as a “species of greatest conservation need” in Wyoming and Idaho, and a species of concern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their populations have dwindled due to habitat loss and degradation. Satellite transmitters on the birds can provide valuable insights into the species’ migratory routes, migratory timing, and habitat requirements as well as allow scientists to develop conservation plans. 

Eighteen curlews were documented on the National Elk Refuge in early June, representing a significant concentration of the bird in western Wyoming. One of them became part of a larger study done by the Intermountain Bird Observatory, which involved equipping a total of nine curlews with solar–powered satellite transmitters. The eight other birds were captured in neighboring states. 

AJ’s transmitter was generously paid for by the Meg and Bert Raynes Wildlife Fund, which supports research and habitat protection in Wyoming and the Jackson Hole area. Because migration of long-billed curlews breeding in Wyoming is largely undocumented, organizers hope to expand the project to include more Wyoming–based curlews in the future. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Eric Cole, along with Wyoming Game & Fish Department biologists Susan Patla and Aly Courtemanch, assisted with the bird capture and transmitter fitting on the National Elk Refuge. 

A set of photos from the May 27 event can be viewed in the National Elk Refuge photo gallery.