John James Audubon states that it is general knowledge that the Long-billed curlew “breeds on the islands on the coast of South Carolina.” The skyline of Charleston, South Carolina, still looks vaguely similar to the one that George Lehman draws for the Long-billed curlew in Birds of America. Whereas the surrounding barrier islands and coastal mudflats where Fiddler crabs and other food available to a bird with a 9” downward-curved bill have been decimated by rising sea levels and development. If someone were looking for a Long-billed curlew in Charleston or anywhere in South Carolina today, it would be almost fruitless. The highest count on Cornell’s e-Bird system for South Carolina is seven. They were hiding miles north of Charleston in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge on September 13, 1992.
Hiding not far from Cape Romain during the spring of 2021 was the Whimbrel. There are currently four subspecies of Whimbrel. Those that migrate along the coasts of North and South America are known as the Hudsonian Whimbrel. As many as 20,000 were counted on Deveaux Bank west of South Carolina’s Wadmalaw Island resting and feeding before they continued their migration to the far north to nest. Prior to exploring the northern Atlantic coast, the Whimbrel was called the “Esquimaux Curlew, Numenius borealis.”
When Audubon reaches Labrador in the summer of 1833, the bird that is supposed to be the Esquimaux curlew is much smaller than the bird with which Audubon is familiar. The bird being called the Esquimaux curlew in Labrador had a length of 14 ½” and a wingspan of 27 3/8.” The bird weighed 8 oz. The bird that Audubon thought was the Esquimaux curlew was 17 ½” long with a wingspan of 33”. The bird weighed 17 ¼ oz. More revealing was their nesting areas. The bird that Audubon thought was the Esquimaux curlew had never been seen in Labrador. “I obtained no information farther than that the latter is extremely abundant for a few weeks in early autumn, and that the present species was entirely unknown.”
For Birds of America, Audubon left the smaller bird named the Esquimaux curlew. On the “table-lands” above Bras d’Or, Audubon notes the Esquimaux Curlew flying “in compact bodies, with beautiful evolutions, overlooking a great extent of country ere they make choice of a spot on which to alight; this is done wherever a certain berry, called here ‘curlew berry [Empetrum nigrum],’ proves to be abundant.” Audubon observes the birds coming from the north and arriving “in such dense flocks as to remind me of the Passenger Pigeons.”
Like the Passenger pigeon, shotguns sent the Esquimaux curlew into extinction. The last photographs of the bird were taken in 1962, well after Audubon was able to differentiate the bird also known as the Eskimo curlew from the one he names the Hudsonian curlew (Numenius hudsonicus) in Birds of America. Audubon relates the name of the bird to an area considerably west of Labrador: “Every person who writes on American birds repeats, that it arrives at Hudson’s Bay, breeds farther north, &c. [likely Canada].”
The current common name for the Hudsonian curlew is the Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus). In all, Whimbrels winter in coastal areas on six continents. The 20,000 Hudsonian Whimbrels at Deveaux Island is estimated to be half of its total population. If the Hudsonian Whimbrel takes one wrong step in the maelstrom of human activity, they will surely meet the same demise as the Eskimo curlew.