The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) is taking a hands-on view of spring migration this year, GPS-tagging a lone, long-billed curlew from a southeast wintering population that has dwindled so much that the Smithsonian calls the little-seen fliers "ghost" birds.
It's the first time anyone has tagged a bird from the Atlantic group.
"The birds were once abundant in the marshes of the Southeast, but are now rarely seen, making them like ghosts," said SMBC research ecologist Autumn-Lynn Harrison in a statement. "Thanks to one tagged bird, we're finally going to get answers and discover this unknown migration."
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Long-billed curlews breed in the Great Basin and Great Plains of Canada and the United States, spending their winters in California, Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and the southeastern United States.
Their breeding ground of choice is grasslands, where they use their long, pointy bills to investigate muddy areas in search of tasty insects or small invertebrates such as crabs.
Today it's a species of "least concern," conservation-wise, but long-billed curlews were once considered "near threatened" due to habitat loss and hunting. And, while other regional populations rebounded, the southeastern birds did not.
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The bird chosen for the research was tagged in Georgia in December 2015. It comes from a wintering population that is down to an estimated 100 birds. The scientists hope following its flight path can tell them more about where it breeds, the route it takes after it leaves the Atlantic, and where it rests.
The tracking could also better inform conservation efforts.
As of this writing, the journey is underway. SMBC says the bird began its migration on April 5, its location data logged daily.
"We have no idea what to expect, but this curlew is an important individual from a species that is especially beloved in the southeastern part of the country," Harrison said. "It has the unique ability to help us understand its population and implement conservation strategies that can make a difference."
Dedicated birders may be interested to know they, too, can follow the curlew on its journey. SMBC has set up a website with a live map that charts the bird's progress.