You probably have a mental image of a sandpiper: a small bird with gray and white plumage, short legs, running along a beach. This image fits many sandpipers, but not the Long-billed Curlew.
The Long-billed Curlew is our largest sandpiper. Its wingspan is 35 inches across, and it weighs almost a pound and a half. Its length from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail is 23 inches, but keep in mind that a large part of that is due to the bird’s extraordinarily long beak. Oberholser in his The Bird Life of Texas calls the long, slender, decurved beak of this bird “a “prodigiously long sickle.” An old female (they are larger than the males) can have a bill length of 8.7 inches!
The long bills allow these sandpipers to push deep between rocks of jetties and to probe into the soft mud of mudflats to find small crabs, shrimp, snails, worms and other invertebrates. They devour these food items whole and continue searching for more amongst the rocks, mud and sand. So it isn’t surprising to see a Long-billed Curlew on a beach or mudflat.
However, when I saw a flock of these curlews feeding in the short grass of Rob and Bessie Welder Park (near Sinton), I thought “Wait! This isn’t sandpiper habitat!” But, actually, it is for these versatile birds. The Audubon Society’s website states that “This incredibly long-billed sandpiper is the largest of our shorebirds; but more often than not, it is seen away from the shore. It spends the summer on the grasslands of the arid west, appearing on coastal mudflats only in migration and winter, and even then likely to be on prairies instead.” So, a mowed park or a golf course is more like home than the beach is to a Long-billed Curlew.
On these managed types of grasslands, and on the prairies, the curlew forages by walking along rather quickly, reaching ahead with its long bill to pick up insects and occasionally probing into softer soil for worms and insect grubs. In fact, it is primarily an insect-eater both winter and summer. With a beak half as long as its body, the curlew can grab a beetle long before the bug even sees something coming!
Like many birds, the curlew gets its name from its song. On its breeding grounds, the Long-billed Curlew calls out a clear whistle, particularly in flight. It is “commonly a short, rising coooLI with a sharp rise at the end” according to David Sibley’s guide to birds (2000). Oberholser describes the bird’s springtime song as “a drawn-out (sometimes up to three seconds), liquid curleeeeeeuuu.” In addition, the curlews converse in kli-ki-ki-ki sounds when in flight and when alarmed.
While I watched the 21 curlews forage on the golf course greens at Rob and Bessie Welder Park, I was reminded of a flock of chickens free-ranging. They walked along in a loose group, heads bobbing forward and backward like those of chickens and nabbing tidbits from the ground as they went. Suddenly, one flew a short distance to get ahead of the flock. I saw his cinnamon-pink wing linings, characteristic of the species. As he landed, he held his wings aloft for a brief moment, a behavior common to sandpipers. The group foraged on for a few more minutes, then they all took to the air. They flew in an irregular line, low over the green, gliding on those yard-wide wingspans, right towards me. Unafraid, the curlews landed within 20 feet of me on a gravel road. One by one, they folded their long legs and settled down on the warm gravel for a midday rest. They tucked those long bills into the feathers of their backs and wings, closed their eyes and napped. What a good life these wintering curlews have!
The best time to view Long-billed Curlews in this part of Texas is in the winter months, from mid-December through mid-February. They are common along the coast, but again, mostly in prairie-like grassy areas. For some reason, golf courses suit them, and they are unbothered by golfers (and vice-versa from what I have observed). Some curlews will winter further inland in South Texas, but generally, you will have better luck finding them within 60 miles of the coast.
After a few months of feeding, loafing and hanging out with their fellow curlews, the Long-billed Curlews head back to the High Plains region of North America. Their working (i.e. breeding) life is there. But, lucky for us, they will return as Winter Texans again next year!