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Smithsonian Tracks Lone "Ghost" Curlew's Migration

The bird comes from a little-seen Atlantic coast population that's never before been tracked.

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."

Impressive Bird Flying Formations: Photos

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.

VIDEO: Why Birds Are Always Flying Into Things

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.

Birds in flight often arrange themselves in aerodynamically optimum positions, according to a new paper in the

journal Nature

that helps to explain how birds fly in such impressive formations. Lead researcher Steven Portugal and his colleagues focused their study on northern bald ibises, but many bird species also exhibit the amazing flight behavior. Portugal, a University of London Royal Veterinary College researcher, told Discovery News that birds could be using three things to achieve their flying precision: "(1) vision – watching the bird in flight to get all the information they need, (2) feathers – sensing the changes in pressure, wind etc. through their flight feathers, and (3) positive feedback – i.e. they just fly around and when it feels easier/better they stay in that position."

The researchers determined that birds try to find "good air," meaning airflows (not just wind, but even the air created by other flapping wings) that minimize their energy expenditure and help them to get where they plan to go. Conversely, birds avoid regions of "bad air" that could work against them.

Many birds fly in distinctive V-formations. Portugal said, "The intricate mechanisms involved in V formation flight indicate remarkable awareness and ability of birds to respond to the wing path of nearby flock-mates. Birds in V formation seem to have developed complex phasing strategies to cope with the dynamic wakes (turbulent air) produced by flapping wings."

Military planes sometimes fly in what is known as an "echelon formation," which mirrors nearly the exact same flight formation of many birds. This particular bird version is a variation of the "V," only with a rounded edge.

The U.S. Navy's famous flight demonstration squadron The Blue Angels often flies in a trademark "diamond formation" once popularized by fighter-bomber pilots. In it, the pilots maintain an 18-inch wing tip to canopy separation. Birds can fly even more tightly together.

The term "murmuration" refers to a flock of starlings. These birds can create dramatic patterns in the sky, such as this one over marshlands near Tønder, Denmark. Other small birds, such as sandpipers, may also create what look to be dazzling aerial ballets in the sky as they fly en masse.

Even birds flying very close to land can do so in remarkable unison. Here, a formation was photographed as the birds flew over the beach at Camperduin in the Netherlands.

The classic "V" formation has all sorts of variations. In this case, three separate -- yet united -- groups create an arrow-like effect in the sky.

Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film "The Birds" included many scenes where numerous birds blanketed the sky. Up close, these starlings look small and harmless but, as a huge murmuration, their power becomes evident.

From the earliest planes to those in design today, aircraft have been modeled after birds. It's no wonder. Every inch of this sleek northern bald ibis, snapped while flying over Tuscany, adds to the bird's flying prowess. Its 53-inch wingspan and powerful, synchronized wing beats must have captivated people in the ancient world too, since ancient Egyptians and other early cultures featured the birds prominently in their artwork and legends.