Long-billed curlews visit two of my favorite desolate landscapes: salt marsh shoreline and arid grasslands. In winter in Central California, populations can be found in both locations at once, in the Morro Bay estuary and in the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
In the estuary, they wade with long legs and scoop food from mud with down-turned long beaks. Salt water and freshwater mix in a slow, steady way in Morro Bay's estuary. A sandspit blocks a river's approach to the ocean, and in turn, slows the Pacific water that comes in to meet the freshwater at high tide. The exchange of salty and freshwater in protected currents allows many of the nutrients to drop out of the water as mud. Birds, especially in winter, find this mud a rich source of food. A terrific site hosted by the City College of Santa Barbara describes the estuary habitat in detail.
In my photograph below, a curlew stands in the muddy estuary at water's edge. In the mud, the curlew can find mollusks and especially tunneling crabs to eat (mud crabs are abundant in this habitat. For more, see my mud crab page). The dull brown salt marsh plants behind the curlew send out roots that can survive salt water. However, their leaves cannot stand to be inundated with salt water for long. So usually the salt marsh line represents where the usual high tide stops. With this information, I am able to guess that I took my photo at high tide.
Meanwhile at the same time of year, curlews flock to the Carrizo Plain about sixty miles inland. The cinnamon-winged birds flying in a wedge to land in a new field are beautiful in the barren landscape of the plains.
Truly open-range birds, curlews even nest in these grassland habitats. They build small cup shapes on the ground lined with blades of grass and weeds.
Almost like the sound of wind through dry grass, their song, from which they get their name, is an evocative "curlee." Listen to it here, and check out how they are the symbol of the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
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