This medium-sized shorebird is the largest member of the sandpiper family and breeds in far northeastern New Mexico, but may be seen during spring and fall migration throughout the state. Main breeding grounds are in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and western Nebraska and South Dakota. Wintering range is along the west coast and in Mexico. The species was once more widespread across the Great Plains and western states, but conversions of native grasslands to agriculture have reduced habitat and resulted in population declines for the curlew. Application of pesticides to control grasshoppers and other insect pests also reduce available prey for curlews. The Audubon Society reports that the species is in a high vulnerability status and that it has suffered a summer range loss in New Mexico over about half of the state.
Though in the family of shorebirds, this species typically nests on the ground in open prairies. The mottled tan plumage serves as good camouflage in grassland habitat where females may remain motionless on a nest to avoid detection. Research has shown that curlew nests constructed near cow pies are more successful than others. The advantage provided by the cow pie is unknown. Nests are also sometimes placed in cattle hoof print depressions. The normal clutch of four nestlings are active soon after hatching and forage for themselves, though both parents stay nearby and lead the chicks to favorable feeding areas, such as marshy patches where more insects are available. Curlews feed primarily on insects they come upon as they walk around foraging. But they may also take amphibians or eggs and chicks of other birds.
Outside of the breeding season the birds favor wetlands and mudflats. In these habitats they will eat mollusks, crayfish, crabs, and worms. The very long, downward curving beak is useful in probing for invertebrates below the soil surface or in muddy or marshy ground.
The birds photographed here were part of a group of eight individuals observed foraging together on ranchland south of Moriarty in mid-April, 2020. They probably represented a family of adults and juveniles migrating north to their summer range.
James Taulman is a semi-retired research wildlife biologist, having worked with the U.S. Forest Service research branch and taught zoology, ecology, and other courses in several university positions. He is currently living in the East Mountains, and explores natural areas observing native wildlife and conducting independent research projects.