Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Concerning the curlew's overwater route off Massachusetts, Mackay wrote: "I
am inclined to the opinion that these birds generally pass our coast much further
from land than has been usually supposed, for it rarely happens that any large
numbers of them are deflected over the land by ordinary storms, very severe
thunder and lightning with heavy rain, or dense fogs, apparently being required
to drive them from their customary line of flight and force them to seek land
until more favorable conditions for migrating take place, for they are unusually
strong and high fliers with great endurance....
"Those which do visit us almost invariably land with their boon companions,
the American Golden Plover, of whose flocks I have frequently noticed they were
the leaders, and I can scarcely call to mind, as I write, an instance where
any number of Eskimo Curlews have landed without there being more or less Golden
Plover present at the same time" (Mackay 1892:16-17).
Firsthand observations of curlews migrating over the ocean may total two--the
first ones given below. However, there are a few anecdotal accounts of other
shorebirds that may also apply to Eskimo Curlews.
"Several trustworthy fishermen who are excellent sportsmen as well, and who
have often been cod-fishing off George's Banks, seventy miles [110 km] east
of Cape Cod, inform us they have frequently seen golden plover and dough birds
there in large flocks, always mixed up together, going south, and for weeks,
when not too foggy, there was scarcely a moment when one or more flocks were
not visible. Captain B. wrote us from Cienfuegos [Cuba], June 23d.: 'On the
passage (from Boston) May 27th, forty miles [65 km] southeast from Nantucket,
I saw, distant from the ship, not over one hundred and twenty yards, eight plover
swimming very gracefully on the water. They took wing and shifted a few hundred
yards further to the westward' " (Hapgood 1887:24).
A more recent event was described by Barbour (1906:459): "When the S.S. 'Baltic'
was about half way between Ireland and Newfoundland, on May 26, 1906, an Eskimo
Curlew...came on board....At noon on that day the ship's position was Lat. 49°
06' North, Long. 27° 28' West; the bird came on board at perhaps 2 or 3
P M ...Being evidently fatigued, it was finally caught by one of the steerage
passengers, and confined in a cage roughly made from a soap box. It was fed
on chopped beef and chicken, and ate heartily, but died a short time before
we reached the Sandy Hook Lightship.... "
Hapgood (1887:18) quoted another "reliable source:...`I was coming home (to
Boston) from Europe one voyage and passed large flocks [of shorebirds] three
hundred miles from land, going South, in September'....
"[A captain] informs our friend E. that one autumn he saw thousands of plover
in the Gulf Stream nearly five hundred miles [800 km] from land, skipping about
and lighting in the water and on accumulated seaweed and other vegetable matter....Other
shipmasters have made similar statements. It must, however, be understood that
when these people who are not naturalists speak of `plover,' they are liable
to refer to any of the marsh or shore birds."
|Map 2. Anderson River-Franklin Bay area, showing MacFarlane's overland collecting route.|
Mackay (1896b:90) presents a final piece of evidence for curlews' swimming:
"If during such passage, they require rest, they can easily obtain it by alighting
on the ocean. This they do, being good swimmers. Neither are they exceptional
in this respect, many others doing the same. As an instance in illustration
one of my shooting acquaintances while fishing one day about three miles off
the coast of Massachusetts observed a flock of a dozen or fifteen Pectoral Sandpipers
(Tringa maculata) passing; on whistling to them they abruptly turned
from their course in response to his call, and flying towards his boat, whirled
up into the wind and alighted on the ocean. After swimming around a short
time they arose without effort, and, each bird giving its feathers a shake,
proceeded on their way."
Note: Map 3 -- Map of North America showing Eskimo Curlew migration routes.
The role that the Eskimo Curlew may have played in leading Europeans to the
New World is narrated in part as follows: On October 7, 1492, "immense flocks
of birds, far more than they had seen before, passed overhead all day long,
coming always from the north and heading always towards the southwest." On this,
his 65th day at sea, Columbus decided to change course and follow the birds.
"Columbus's journal tells us that some birds the sailors snared were plainly
field birds that could not possibly find rest on the water.
|Map 4. South America showing monthly distribution of Eskimo Curlew reports and potential wintering area.|
"Although the mariners did not know what the non-stop birds were, that statement,
the date and direction of flight at that time and in that place identify them
almost certainly as golden plovers and Eskimo curlews, the only birds [not so]
having the speed and power to make the oversea flight of 2,500 miles or more
from Labrador in the north to the region of the Orinoco River [in Venezuela]"
(Tooke 1961). On 12 October Columbus landed on San Salvador (Island).
More accounts of oceanic flights are presented in the discussion of Bermuda