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Voyageur's Best Features of 2005

Long-billed Curlew

Timing is everything!
Sighting uncommon birds
by Kim and Cindy Risen  |  May 10, 2005

Recently, Warren Nelson of Aitkin experienced a birthday the likes of which the rest of us can only dream. His day began with the kind of weather that is long remembered by anyone who enjoys their time outdoors. Cool in the morning, the April sun soon warmed the earth and filled the air with the unforgettable smell of a perfect spring day. He even got to enjoy breakfast with his friends before embarking on a birding trip around Aitkin County with the local bird club.

At midday, as the group enjoyed their lunch at the Palisade Cafe, they relived the morning’s sightings. Uncommon birds are always enjoyed by birders, and the group of 41 American White Pelicans sunning themselves in a flooded field and a beautiful Cattle Egret in the same area capped their list of highlights. Talk, as usual when birders gather, soon wandered to the subject of what birds they still needed to see in Aitkin County. Topping the list of wanted birds was Long-billed Curlew. A short time later, when Warren was served his birthday cake, he was serenaded by the entire room and, as he blew out the single, sputtering candle he said, “I wish for a Long-billed Curlew!”

Less than twenty minutes later, as our car caravan was passing the Fleming Methodist Church south of Palisade, Warren and my wife, Cindy, shouted for me to turn the car around as, “There was a curlew-looking bird in that field.” Retracing our steps proved to be a good idea for there, wandering around the short grass of the hayfield was a Long-billed Curlew.

As you can see from our photos, the Long-billed Curlew is an unusual looking bird. They are named for their extraordinarily long bills, which they use to probe deep into spider and worm burrows in the parched prairie grasslands they call home, and for their distinctive, whistled “currleee” calls. With those amazing bills, Long-billed Curlews don’t provide much of an identification problem. They are an overall warm brown color with strongly patterned upperparts, while the belly is a brighter buff-orange and the underwings are a brilliant cinnamon.

The Long-billed Curlew was a familiar sight on the western prairies of 19th century Minnesota. As native prairie disappeared under the plow this striking bird disappeared from Minnesota and grew scarce over much of its range. Since 1980 only nine Long-billed Curlews have been spotted in Minnesota, and most of those are from prairie areas in the western part of the state. The appearance of one in Aitkin County was an unexpected treat.

As the excitement of our discovery faded a few comments were directed toward Warren. “You might want to ask for more candles on your birthday cake next year,” someone said.

With a hearty chuckle Warren replied, “If I had known my wish was going to come true, I would have wished to win the lottery!”

As I watched the smiling faces of our group beaming in the late afternoon sunlight I reviewed the events of the day. In my opinion, Warren, I think you did.

As exciting as the experiences surrounding our discovery of a Long-billed Curlew near Palisade were, only three days would pass before an even more spectacular discovery would be made. One that would make newspaper headlines and cause birders to drive all night just to reach Aitkin before the bird disappeared.

Returning home to Deerwood after a meeting at the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Steve and Josephine Blanich decided to check out the series of flooded fields just west of Aitkin. Known as the Cedarbrook area, these fields had been full of birds a few days earlier. As they drove by the first pond Jo called out to Steve, “Stop! There is a larger, dark bird out there.” When they saw the bird in their binoculars, much to their surprise it proved to be an ibis, the first one ever found in Aitkin County.

Steve and Jo called Warren Nelson and Cindy and I to alert us to their exciting find. When Cindy and I arrived a short time later there was a happy group of birders admiring the ibis. Believing that this was the far more expected White-faced Ibis, I took a few distant photos to document the record before looking through the spotting scope. As soon as I looked through the scope it became obvious that this was NOT a White-faced Ibis but was the far more rare Glossy Ibis. I shouted to the group, “This isn’t a White-faced Ibis. It’s a Glossy Ibis!" but they just stood there! How could they not run over to look in the scope? “No! Really! I’m not kidding! It’s a second state record Glossy Ibis!” At this point they calmly walked over to enjoy the ibis in its new light.

The Glossy Ibis can be safely separated from the very similar looking White-faced Ibis only in the breeding season. Because of their extreme similarity, no immatures and many winter adults cannot be identified to species with certainty. When in breeding plumage, with a full chestnut head and neck, the two can be told apart by their differing facial patterns. Glossy Ibis has only a narrow edge of pale blue skin bordering the gray facial skin forming two lines in front of their brown eyes. White-faced Ibis has a wide band of white feathers that surround their red eyes and bright red facial skin completely. Other differences are much more subtle and unreliable.

The Aitkin Glossy Ibis is only the second one to have been confirmed in Minnesota. The first, from the Heron Lake area of Jackson County in southwestern Minnesota, was seen by only a few people. The Cedarbrook ibis was present for almost three days during which time birders came from all around Minnesota to add this rare wanderer to their lists.

Memorable, were the van load of birders who arrived bleary-eyed after driving through the night in order to see the bird before it left. After successfully finding their quarry they climbed back into their vehicle for the return trip. Albeit, with large smiles and a bit of adrenaline rush to see them off. One gentleman from Minneapolis made three long roundtrips after missing the bird by a few minutes both at sunrise and sunset. Proving the point that in birding, as in life, timing IS everything. An enthusiastic teenager from Grand Marais convinced his Minneapolis-bound parents to take “Just a little bit of a detour” so that he might have a chance to see the Glossy Ibis. It probably helped that he had his driver’s permit and was able to split the driving duties with his very understanding parents.

But, perhaps, my favorite experience was talking to some of the local residents who stopped to ask, “What’s going on with all these people here?” After a quick trip home to pick up their binoculars or maybe a bird book, they returned to look at this beautiful bird and were able to enjoy it through one of the many telescopes trained on the ibis. Their comments were always fun to hear, “Wow, he really is a beauty isn’t he?” and “Unbelievable! What did you say it was, again?”

Verifying my thought that you don’t need to know the name of every bird you look at, sometimes it’s enough to just enjoy the beauty of a striking bird.

This article first appeared in the May 10, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.