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Smithsonian Tracks Mysterious ‘Ghost Bird’

Researchers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) along with partners are celebrating this month at the beginning of migration with a single long-billed curlew they outfitted with a satellite tag back in December, 2015.

Long-billed curlews breed in grasslands of the Great Basin and Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada, and overwinter in California, the Gulf Coast, the southeastern United States and Mexico.  The bird was once so common in the Southeast, it was the centerpiece of John James Audubon’s famous painting of the long-billed curlew, set against the Charleston, SC skyline. Unfortunately, the curlew is no longer a common bird due to human activities.  A combination of hunting and habitat loss devastated the eastern population during the 1800s.

This particular bird was tagged in Georgia and comes from a wintering population of fewer than 100.  The information obtained could help answer basic questions that have thus far eluded scientists about this near-extirpated population: Where do they breed?  What path do they take to get there from the Atlantic coast?  Where do they rest?  Where should conservationists focus their efforts?

This is the first time that anyone has tracked a curlew from this vanishing wintering group along the Atlantic Coast,” said Autumn-Lynn Harrison, a research ecologist with the SMBC. “The birds were once abundant in the marshes of the Southeast, but are now rarely seen, making them like ghosts. Thanks to one tagged bird, we’re finally going to get answers and discover this unknown migration.”

Tagging the curlew required the collaborative efforts of researchers from diverse organizations.  Members from the SMBC, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program teamed up in the endeavor.  Not only are the birds very limited in numbers, but the curlews only come far enough on shore for the researchers to catch during the very height of high tide.

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Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

The tagged long-billed curlew began its migration April 5.  The satellite tag transmits location data every day. Members of the public can follow the bird’s progress on a live tracking map and learn more about the work on SMBC’s Migratory Connectivity Project blog.

We have no idea what to expect, but this curlew is an important individual from a species that is especially beloved in the southeastern part of the country,” Harrison said. “It has the unique ability to help us understand its population and implement conservation strategies that can make a difference.”

The curlew tracking work is part of the Migratory Connectivity Project, funded in part by the ConocoPhillips Charitable Investment Global Signature Program.




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