Long-billed Curlew

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Female Long-billed Curlew feeding

The Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) bears several distinctions among North American shorebirds, being the largest regularly occurring sandpiper on the continent, as well as the one with the largest bill. The bill size of the Long-billed Curlew is quite variable, with females generally having notably longer bills than males. The two genders have different shaped bills as well. The male Long-billed Curlew has a bill that shows nearly continuous curvature along its length, while the female’s is overall flatter but with a sharply hooked tip. Note how this bird’s lower mandible is distinctly shorter than the upper, falling short of the often sharply curved tip. Long-billed Curlews are common wintering birds in southern California, gathering in huge numbers on the agricultural fields of Imperial County, and in smaller numbers at Bolsa Chica Preserve and Upper Newport Bay here in Orange County. A certain small number of Long-billed Curlews do not migrate north to their breeding grounds each year, meaning there are some individuals present year round at locations like Bolsa Chica.

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Long-billed Curlew at Bolsa Chica Preserve

Long-billed Curlews can occur almost anywhere, using their bills to probe the earth or beach for crustaceans, insects and other invertebrates. They are at home feeding in grassy fields, along the edges of ponds or rivers or at the seashore. Long-billed Curlews are fun to watch feeding as, with good optics, (try the Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope with a TE-11WZ 25-60x zoom eyepiece) it’s often possible to see exactly what they are catching and eating. They use their bill like a tweezers, first grabbing the prey and then repositioning it several times, moving it up closer to the mouth before deftly tossing and swallowing it in a single gulp. Long-billed Curlews are handsome birds, with a light brown coloration, tinged with a more rufous wash, and a “tree branch” pattern of dark brown in the center of the back and flight feathers. The neck is lightly streaked vertically. The lower mandible is pinkish, particularly close to the gape; the legs and feet are flesh-toned. In North America, the only commonly occurring shorebird that could easily be confused for a Long-billed Curlew would be the Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus). Whimbrels are smaller, have shorter bills, bluish legs and feet, and thick dark stripes on the crown. Listen also for the haunting and beautiful Long-billed Curlew call, most often given in flight. These photos were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T3, using a 100-400 mm zoom lens.

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