There cannot be many ABA area breeding birds harder to get than those that only breed on the remotest tips of the north of North America and then fly off to places that aren’t on the major continental flyways. One such tricky bird is the Bristle-thighed Curlew, a species that complicates the matter by looking suspiciously like the common or garden Whimbrel. In fact Sibley observes that it is identical in size and shape, so you’d better get a good look at its paler rump or hear its distinctive call. They do turn up on the coast of North America, but not often. You may even have seen one and not known it! 

Failing that, you could go to its winter range. Whereas the Whimbrel winters across the coasts of southern North America and is a very familiar sight there, Bristle-thighed Curlews migrate over vast distances across the Pacific Ocean to specifically winter on tropical islands. You can encounter them from Hawaii across to French Polynesia and Fiji. I was lucky enough to encounter one when I worked in French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (an amazing place I have spoken of before). It was a particular relief to see one actually, as it was basically the first new bird I had seen in 4 months on the island! It’s also fun to think about the massive disparity between the winter and summer range of the species.

Bristle-thighed Curew (Numenius tahitiensis) with Red-footed Booby

Such beautiful crystal clear waters behind it!

Click on this close up to check out the bristles that give the species it’s name!

 Unfortunately the Bristle-thighed Curlew is considered vulnerable by the IUCN. Among the threats are low level hunting in its winter range, introduced species and possibly gold mining in its breeding range. Don’t let the fact that you’ve never seen one of these and probably never will stop you from keeping an eye on its status and encouraging politicians to do the same!


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Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.