Rich Stallcup died December 15, 2012. He was a kind, wonderful guy and a brilliant naturalist. Once he told me a story about a bristle-thighed curlew, and the people who admired it. Before the story I want to say what a freakily great bird the bristle-thighed curlew is.
First, the bristle thighed curlew (Numenius tahitiensis) spends the summer in Alaska and the winter in Hawaii. Or Tahiti or other tropical Pacific islands. Nice work if you can get it. Maybe not that easy to get, since there are only about 7,000 bristle-thighed curlews in the world.
They're hard to see. The Hawaiian
birds aren't hanging around Oahu, they're out on uninhabited islands.
And the Alaskan birds are off in low-lying, mosquito-infested tundra.
If you do see one, you might mistake it for the very similar whimbrel. Hearing its distinctive call might be your
best bet for identifying it. Birdwatchers, especially birders who are
trying to see every breeding bird species in the US, or in
North America, long for sightings of these rare curlews, but most have
never seen one.
This curlew is a large brown moth-patterned shorebird with a long sickle bill. From a distance they just look brown. You can't see the complicated plumage patterns or the bristled thighs. I don't know why they have bristled thighs. I haven't run across any speculations. If you held a gun to my head and made me guess (part of a really sick scenario), I'd say it might have something to do with courtship, and showing another bristle-thighed curlew of the appealing sex that you too are a bristle-thighed curlew and you'd like to get to know them better. (Please put the gun down now.)
They eat almost anything. Flowers, bugs, berries, land crabs, invertebrates, and the eggs of other birds. Here's a startling thing: they use tools to break open large eggs. The long sickle bills aren't the best tool for smashing things, so they grab rocks or pieces of coral and slam them down on the egg.
They're the only shorebirds known to use tools, a habit that has been beautifully documented in a paper by Jeffrey S. Marks and C. Scott Hall, published in the 1992 Condor.
Marks and Hall observed bristle-thigheds on Tern Island and Laysan Island, in the far northwestern part of the Hawaiian Archipelago. When the curlews get a food item too big to swallow, like a largish ghost crab, they slam it against the ground or a rock until it breaks into delightful bite-sized morsels. Adults haven't been seen doing this in Alaska, but baby curlews there will slam bits of moss, lichen, or plastic flagging (presumably put up by curlew biologists trying to get their bearings).
When the young curlews arrive in the islands for the first time, having traveled 2,500 miles from their birthplace, they are in a slammin' mood, and will slam feathers, shells, or bits of seaweed. I presume they soon learn to focus on more edible things to slam.
But sometimes a curlew comes across an abandoned albatross egg. It's too big to pick up and slam, and the shell is too thick for a curlew to puncture with its bill. That's when the tool use happens. Marks and Hall say it's probably an extension of slamming behavior, and I agree. But I still think it's clever.
So: smart rare mysterious long-distance travelers. A bird I'd love to see.
At one time Rich Stallcup led 30-day Alaskan birding tours for the company Wings, tours for the fanatical and obsessed. On his fifth tour his group – 20 devoted birders – was exhausted from days of camping. They flew to St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs, arriving at 9 p.m. There were three hours of daylight left in the long Alaskan summer day, but word on the birder grapevine was that no notable rare birds were about. No vagrant Siberian birds had been spotted. The seabird nesting colonies – the two species of kittiwakes, three auklets, two murres, two puffins – would still be there in the morning.
Rich assembled the weary group in the lobby of the King Eider Hotel, the island's only hostelry, run by Aleuts. He went over the next day's plan. Since there were no rarities around, he said they could all go to bed early, and sleep in.
After five hours sleep, Rich found himself wide awake. He wandered down to the beach. “I'm just admiring the Kittlitz's Murrelets,” he told me, when he heard a bird call he'd never heard before. (He whistled this for me – Sibley gives the flight call as “teeoip.”) “I go, 'Ho, shit. What's that?'” Teeoip!
“Straight in from Hawaii, here comes the Bristle-thighed Curlew, one of the most wanted and rare birds in America. It flies right in front of me – teeoip! – real low. I'm just quivering because it's so great.” The curlew flies away, low and to the west, whistling teeoip “as if it wanted to land,” leaving Rich on the beach, in awe and dread, wondering “What am I gonna say at breakfast?”
The trip leader is not supposed to sneak off and see the good birds himself after telling everyone to sleep in. And the Bristle-thighed Curlew is an unspeakably good bird.
Rich spent the day trying to atone. If only they could find the curlew again! He dragged the group all over the island, even when they whimpered about missing lunch. (They must have despaired of seeing the curlew by then, to complain about such a petty thing. And maybe they had been too agitated to eat their breakfasts. Still.)
Late in the afternoon, at Stony Point Lake, the curlew sprang up. It landed where everyone could see it and drink in its exotic beauty, marvel at its thighs. They returned to the King Eider in triumph, rejoicing mightily.
“That evening we went over in a bus. We brought most of the Aleuts, the seal-killers and the mechanics. Everybody wanted to see this wonderful thing.” That's not something that usually happens on birding trips. That Rich's excitement was so infectious, and that he was so intent on sharing the experience, tells you a lot about him.
At the lake the curlew was bathing in company with a Eurasian Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus phaeopus), a bird ordinarily notable in itself. Eventually the Whimbrel wanted to leave. “The Whimbrel jumps out of the water and starts screaming. Quiquiquiquiqui! The curlew gets out. Quiquiquiquiqui! The whimbrel's so anxious, it jumps up into flight, and finally the curlew jumps up too, and they tower up to a thousand feet – with oldsquaws chittering, and Black-legged Kittiwakes – kitti-weeik! Kitti-weeik! – and they fly off. People were on the ground weeping.”