Nebraska has an enormous range of areas to appreciate, but along the Nebraska Sandhills you will find a unique eco-region, which serves as an increasingly important breeding ground for many different bird species. One of these bird species is the Long-billed Curlew, which is America’s largest native sandpiper. It’s one of only nine grassland birds commonly occurring in the Great Plains, Nebraska. They are often referred to as the sickle- or candlestick bird; names that have been acquired thanks to the distinctive, and somewhat disproportionally long beak that, visually, defines the species.
Aside from the strikingly long and downward-curved beak, when attempting to identify the Long-billed Curlew with your camera, binoculars, or spotting scope, you will notice back and outer wing feathers similar to those of the female American Kestrel, with a wonderful, deep cinnamon-brown alternating with uniform streaks of black. They also have long, slender legs, to rival any Victoria’s Secret model, which help to keep their body out of the water or damp soil/sand.
Those planning to see these fantastic and highly vocal birds must come to the Nebraska Sandhills during the spring and summer months. Providing one of few remaining strongholds, this region should afford impressive views of the Long-billed Curlew’s courtship ritual, particularly during April. The male circles a specific area, which can stretch to over a mile in diameter, whilst letting out a high-pitched whistle throughout. This inspiring display could warrant the title of lark of the shorelines.
Males and females share roosting responsibilities, but the male typically roosts until the chicks have hatched and takes care of feeding duties. The female will usually leave the nest after two to three weeks. In spite of this dissolution, the same pairs will often mate in further breeding seasons.
While Long-billed Curlews do feed on animals at the surface of grass plains and shorelines, such as crickets, beetles, and other insects, their beaks are specially adapted for extracting food buried in soil and sand, such as worms, crabs, and shrimp. And when identifying them, remember, mud will often cake their beaks, giving it a much darker appearance than the actual color beneath, with the lower mandible a light pink.
Long-billed Curlews are currently classified as a “Tier 1 – At Risk” species, due to grasslands that are important for breeding being turned over to agriculture. However, efforts are being made to better understand and support this species. These measures, along with the increasing awareness of how wildlife enthusiasts can help, should hopefully preserve this species status as one of Nebraska’s most beguiling birds.