A Juneau couple has likely made the first verified sighting of a Long-billed Curlew in Alaska. North America’s largest shorebird, rarely seen in this part of the country, may become No. 502 on the Checklist of Alaska Birds.
Martina Kallenberger and husband Doug Sanvik were bird watching at Boy Scout Camp on May 3. Kallenberger says they started around 11 a.m. walking the trail and beach and were going through the meadow around 1:30.
“We were actually watching a flock of Lapland Longspurs when we noticed these two shorebirds on a little rise by the stream and one of them was a Whimbrel, which we recognized, and the other one was just shockingly different,” Kallenberger says.
Kallenberger and Sanvik watched the bird for at least an hour, taking pictures and referring to guidebooks. They had an inkling it might be the Long-billed Curlew.
“During the course of the time we were sitting there I was going through the bird book thinking, ‘Well, gosh it can’t be this, it could be— No…’ And I kept coming back to the Curlew, and Doug and I were both like, ‘It sure looks like a match but, gosh, it just doesn’t seem right.'”
They had reason to be hesitant.
“It is very rare,” says Steve Heinl.
Heinl is a lifelong birder and sits on the University of Alaska Museum’s Alaska Checklist Committee, which maintains and decides what goes on the official list of birds documented in Alaska.
“There had only been three previous reports of a Long-billed Curlew in Alaska, but none of them were photographed,” he says.
This is what makes Kallenberger and Sanvik’s sighting a likely entry on the list. Heinl says a sighting can be verified with photographs or a specimen.
Sightings of Long-billed Curlews on the unsubstantiated list first took place in 1973 near Juneau’s Eagle River, not again until 1992 on the Stikine River near Wrangell, and most recently in 2008 on the Situk River in Yakutat.
Long-billed Curlews spend winters in Mexico and on the west coast of North America. They breed throughout the West from southern Canada to New Mexico.
Heinl says the bird in Juneau likely flew farther than it needed to.
“I think it overshot its normal breeding range, which means it migrated too far north. Often birds that migrate to the wrong place are younger birds so it perhaps was on its first northward migration,” Heinl says.
That’s part of what makes watching birds so great, Heinl says, and why the Checklist of Alaska Birds will likely never stop growing.
“They have wings and they fly off in the wrong direction and there’s always potential to see something you’ve never seen before,” he says.
Kallenberger and Sanvik are proof of this. Kallenberger says they’ve spent many hours birdwatching at Boy Scout Camp and never imagined they’d see a Long-billed Curlew.
“Anytime I see a new species, it’s just hugely exciting,” Kallenberger says. “But to see something as unusual as this bird in this place was even doubly so.”
For Kallenberger and Sanvik, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.