Satellite-equiped curlew makes pit stop in Utah

Thursday , July 10, 2014 - 12:00 AM

GUNNISON — A charismatic shorebird carrying a satellite transmitter made a stopover in Utah before heading south.

The Intermountain Bird Observatory, based in Boise, Idaho, is currently monitoring nine long-billed curlews fitted with the tracking equipment. Researchers will use the data to build a better understanding of the threatened birds’ migratory patterns. One curlew, called “A.J.” by IBO scientists, has already thrown them for a loop. While most birds they’ve tracked so far made a beeline south to Mexico or California this month, A.J. made a long stop in Utah, with a flight path over Ogden.

“We don’t have huge sample size, but relative to the other birds we’re tracking, it suggests the area she found in Utah has something valuable,” said Jay Carlisle with the IBO. “It made it worth her while stopping there and not rushing south to winter.”

The IBO partnered with the Meg and Bert Wildlife Fund as well as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on the curlew tracking project. Researchers initially captured A.J. in the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, Wyo. While the IBO couldn’t confirm it on the ground, Carlisle said she showed signs that suggest she’d successfully hatched a nest of chicks.

“She was in the same area for weeks after we caught her, and her behavior around the nest area suggests she was still incubating,” he said.

Curlews fly by night and rest during the day. After leaving Wyoming on June 24, A.J. spent 12 days in the central part of Utah, near Gunnison. She took off south again by July 6, and has since settled near Sinaloa, Mexico.

The birds’ satellite transmitters send a signal for five hours each day before shutting down to recharge their solar batteries for 24 hours. This gives researchers different windows of observation on the birds, but they can’t continually track them. 

“Over the course of a week, we sample the birds’ activity at all times of the day,” Carlisle said. “So you might start with 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. one morning, then the next day you’ll get roughly 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., it keeps cycling through.”

Long-billed curlew populations have dwindled due to human encroachment on habitat. Only 20,000 of the birds remain, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has deemed them a “highly imperiled” species in their shorebird conservation plan. In Utah, the Division of Wildlife Resources listed the long-billed curlew as a Tier II species of “high conservation concern” in 2003. Since then, DWR has monitored the birds more extensively and found higher populations than originally thought, according to Russell Norvell with the DWR Avian Program. 

"So many, in fact, that we feel they no longer are an immediate concern,“ Norvell said. 

Norvell called the birds a local wildlife action plan ”success story,“ but said his agency will continue to monitor their numbers and distribution to make sure populations stay stable.

“Regionally, they’re definitely a species of concern, but in Utah they seem to be doing a bit better than other places,” Norvell said. 

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