In Search of the Bristle-thighed Curlew
2019 Bird Photographer of the Year competition entrant Tony Davison from the United Kingdom shares his experiences in search of the rare Bristle-thighed Curlew in the Alaskan wilderness.
From 8-23 June 2016, I was fortunate enough to make a trip to Alaska. It was a place I had always wanted to visit and so, along with two birding friends, we made it happen. My main target bird was the Bristle-thighed Curlew, a species that is classified as vulnerable and has become increasingly rare and endangered. From doing my research before the trip, I knew it was not going to be easy to see this bird.
My search for the Bristle-thighed Curlew involved a round trip journey of over 140 miles, on nothing more than a dirt track road. The infamous Kougarok Road heads north for some eighty-five miles out of Nome, a town on the west coast of Alaska. During the journey you travel through the most picturesque scenery and wilderness imaginable, literally miles away from any civilization.
The only way to find the main recognized site for the Bristle-thighed Curlew was to check the milepost numbers along the dirt road and we knew the numbered post we wanted. That was the easy part however: once at the designated post, the way forward was bewildering. We decided to head off along what appeared to be an obvious track up a steep hillside, through huge mounds of tussock grass and tundra bog. After walking for over an hour, we eventually reached a high arctic plateau that was simply awesome, and tundra wilderness extended as far as the eye could see. I wondered where on earth I should start. It was going to be like looking for a needle-in-a-haystack.
The first bird encountered on the plateau was a very obliging American Golden Plover, followed by some distant Hudsonian Whimbrels that really got us going.
After trudging and searching the area intensively for well over three hours we still had no luck with our target species. By now we were tired out and reluctantly were about to give up and make the long journey back to the vehicle. To say that I was disappointed would be a major understatement and I can’t express my emotions here. This would be the only chance of seeing the Bristle-thighed Curlew, the main target bird of the trip. But suddenly, out of nowhere, we heard the distinctive flute-like, cascading whistle of a Bristle-thighed Curlew. With adrenalin flowing, I was yomping back across the tundra, heading in the general direction of the singing bird.
Despite carefully searching the area for twenty minutes or so, we simply couldn’t locate the bird. A few more steps further out into the open tundra and suddenly, in a heart stopping moment, the bird flew up in front of us, circled and then settled back down about 40 metres away and carried on singing. It was very settled in our presence and allowed us all to watch and obtain some superb photographs of this very special bird. We eventually moved away from the bird without disturbing it, leaving it as it continued singing. It was a unique birding experience and one I shall never forget.
The Bristle-thighed Curlew breeds only in Alaska and winters on tropical Pacific Islands, especially on Hawaii. The world population is estimated at 7,000 individuals. They nest at sites on the lower Yukon River and the Seward Peninsular. The species requires exposed and remote tundra habitat and they are often very faithful to their favoured breeding grounds.
Bristle-thighed Curlews are unique among shorebirds in so far as they remain flightless during their moult, which takes place on their wintering grounds throughout August and September. During this time over 50% of adults are completely flightless for a period of up to two weeks. At this time they are very vulnerable to predators and are easy prey; this could be one of a number of reasons for their serious decline.