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Eskimo Curlew

A vanishing species?

The Eskimo Curlew's Year

Introduction to Oceanic Migration


Most curlews probably began their oceanic migration from Labrador, Newfoundland and eastern Quebec. Those that landed elsewhere on the east coast, whether by design or by storm, embarked from points further south and probably met the main army somewhere south of Bermuda

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).

GIF - Probable breeding area
Map 1. Northwest Territories, showing probable breeding area of Eskimo Curlew.

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."

GIF - Overland collecting route
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.

GIF - Wintering area
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 below.


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