Curlews Carrying Shells

Curlews Carrying Shells

Sept 15, 2017 ~ Long-billed Curlews mate and breed on the Great Plains but come south to spend the winter with us. We saw two in early August on the beach behind Bolivar Flats; slightly unusual since the earliest I have seen them is August 26th. But, the move south is complex and dependent on many things. Bird migration is a subject I need to research; in fact I just sent a sample of The Migration of Birds: Seasons on the Wing by Janice M. Hughes to my tablet.  

Curlews use their long bill to probe for food
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/8.0 ISO 1250; tripod

That day we saw a female probing the wet sand for small crabs near the shoreline. The light was wonderfully overcast, and not many cars on the beach so we set up our crates and tripods near her. How did we know it was a female? Their bills are longer than the males and have a bit more curve at the tip. 

Curlews aren't too skittish if your move slowly and stay a reasonable distance away. Often they walk a ways along the beach and then turn and retrace their steps. I was a bit behind her, Bill Maroldo was directly across. 

Curlew making herself bigger to warn off a Laughing Gull above
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/8.0 ISO 1250; tripod

She suddenly raised her tail feathers in response to a marauding Laughing Gull above her. Gulls are notorious for stealing food from any bird that will let them. This gal was on to him! I was shooting f/8 since that bill is sooooo long and you never know which direction the bird will turn.

Well.... hello there.
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/8.0 ISO 1250; tripod

And then she walked up to another female. Our gal is on the left, the stranger is the bird on the right. And judging by the bill length, they are both females. Now, it is hard to tell since when the birds turn the bill will appear foreshortened. But, Bill Maroldo was directly across from the pair so we have his photos as well. 

Curlew picking up shell
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/8.0 ISO 1250; tripod

The strange female then picked up a shell fragment. Go ahead, click on the image to embiggen. It is not food, it is definitely a shell. Our girl just watches. 

Would you like shell? 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/8.0 ISO 1250; tripod

New girl continues to pick up and drop shells. This image looks more like an offering than a threat? She picked up 4 different fragments as they stayed in close proximity. I remember looking at Bill and we were so puzzled by this shell carrying behavior. It did not seem aggressive, but it is something I have never seen before. 

But then....

Curlews ... dancing? 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/10.0 ISO 1250; tripod

In a flash wings were upraised and they moved closer. Both have flared tail feathers and seem to be dancing. They did not circle or touch each other but rather stepped in place. It was definitely some kind of ritualized behavior. 

At the end of the dance 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/10.0 ISO 1250; tripod

New girl dropped her wings first. She is the one that had been picking up shells. This little wing action happened really fast but I did manage to up the f/stop to f/10 since they were so close together. And we were about 25 feet away. 

New gal with a different shell fragment
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/10.0 ISO 1250; tripod

There was MORE shell carrying. Our girl looks wary and on guard. I upped the shutter speed just in case they did something else unexpected.

Taking stock of each other...
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500 sec f/10.0 ISO 1250; tripod

But they just looked at each other. A standoff.

And Bill and I looked at each other... What are we seeing? Can you believe this? 

OK, she says. I will play this game... Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500 sec f/10.0 ISO 1250; tripod

Finally, our girl picked up a shell fragment. The birds only held them for a short period and then dropped them back onto the sand. They did not throw them, in fact it was hard to see when they actually dropped the shell fragment. The bird had a shell, and then it didn't. 

Once again they raised wings
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/10.0 ISO 1000; tripod

There was another flurry of wing raising. Sorry about the wing clip on the bird on the left; it all happens SO FAST. Keeping two moving birds in focus is very difficult especially when they are fairly close. 

I am done she says. 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/10.0 ISO 1250; tripod

And then it was over. There was a bit of feather ruffling, and they each headed off in opposite directions. 

We saw the first curlew on Aug 2, 2017 at 11:31:53 am. She met the second curlew at 11:37:25 am (42 shots later). The last image I have of them close together was 11:44:34 am so the close encounter lasted about 7 minutes. They moved slightly apart and I remember focusing on one and then the other bird. I have images of one of the birds picking up a shell at 11:46:29 but it is alone in the frame. Shortly after that we stopped shooting as they had both moved away.

Now. I e-chatted about this with Ron Dudley, a fantastic photographer and scientist who lives in Utah and sees Long-billed Curlews during courtship and nesting. From the photos I sent he was not certain it was two females, and I am definitely open on that myself. Some images where the birds are turned, the bills look shorter (male or youngster sized) and others longer when parallel to the camera. 

We haven't been back due to Harvey and now Blinding Sunstorms. And Long-billed Curlews seem to be solitary here on the coast. Once years ago we saw two males act out a bit of aggression which I wrote about in Curlew Confrontation or Courtship. One other time we saw a small group peacefully feeding in the lawn of a beach house in Surfside. But more often we just see one on its own. 

What do you think this shell carrying behavior means? Have you ever seen such a thing? Or even read about it? Let me know in the comments below!

Bolivar Bound

Bolivar Bound