Fall is my favorite time of year and it’s the eve of Halloween! This year I’m creating a Long-billed Curlew costume. It’s perfect—the bird is freakish. It’s the Frankenstein of the bird world with a bill bigger than its body.
I realize no one will have a clue about what I am in costume, which is the other reason why it’s perfect. I can open their eyes to Curlewmania. They are the coolest birds on the planet and everyone should know about them since they’re disappearing, like Halloween ghosts before our eyes.
I am also haunted by curlews after chasing the mutant-like things all over the Texas coast. For the past week, our team searched for curlews, almost night and day, in an attempt to capture eight of them to attach satellite transmitters. We missed bird after bird. They were in a park in downtown Corpus Christi for weeks until we showed up. It was as if they left intentionally.
They teased us on a daily basis, walking near but not into the capture zone of our nets. When we finally netted one bird with a net gun, it wiggled free before we could get to it. I swear it laughed at us as it flew away. They were getting into our heads.
Then came our final day in the field. We captured our quotas of Red Knots (6) and Black-bellied Plovers (11). We even managed one Marbled Godwit (11 more to go)—another remarkable species with a bill that resembles a sword. We wanted the elusive curlew. We found a roost of 190 late in the afternoon on an island not far from the shores of Portland, a small town outside of Corpus. We decided to pull out the BIG cannon net.
Marbled Godwit. © Tim Romano.
It’s five times the size of our regular net, requires a giant load of black powder, and uses three projectiles to power it across the enormous capture zone. Confident, we discussed how we would deal with the huge numbers of curlews in our clutches. The curlews were giggling on their mudflats that night thinking about our attempts at capturing them.
We showed up at the boat launch early Monday morning and scanned the island. No curlews. Dejected, we contemplated our next move and calculated the time required to catch our flights. We decided to head to Fish Pass in a state park where we had several close calls catching curlews.
There, we found six curlews sitting in the exact spot where we planned to trap. It took about 45 minutes to set the trap. I twinkled from one direction and David from another. Owen waited with the controls to explode the net over the birds. It took about an hour, but we eventually had five to seven curlews and three godwits in the capture zone. It was the ‘bird load.’
David did the count down…3-2-1 Fire! Fire! Fire! Nothing happened. David anxiously whispered into his radio, “We’re ready, release…hit the switch.” Nothing. We attached the wires from the cannons to the car battery in case it was a power issue. Several curlews had departed but there were still plenty of birds. We fired again but nothing happened. We all stared at the sky and looked in our pockets for our white flags to wave at the curlew in a symbolic gesture of surrender.
But not quite. We still had four hours before departure.
We set up the smaller cannon net, put up two decoys and began twinkling. Within an hour, two curlews were in position and David dug deep into his twinkling playbook. He danced these birds into the middle of the net like I’ve never seen before. He quietly called for the net, “3-2-1 FIRE.”
I could see the net explode and the two curlews took flight toward the open water but they were caught in the last two feet of net. They were fast, and it was close, but we finally caught our curlews. We attached the satellite transmitters and released the birds knowing that we would learn an enormous amount about their secret lives.
Long-billed Curlew. © Autumn-Lynn Harrison.
Our Texas trip ended, but it really is just the beginning. Now we start learning about the biology of the knots, plovers, godwits and curlews as they send us information about their lives and their migrations across the hemisphere. Stay tuned.