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Observation of Slender-billed Curlew in Hungary (2001)

The following descriptions dealing with the circumstances of the observation and the detailed plumage of the bird are parts of a full article due to publish in next years Aquila (Vol. 116) journal of the Hungarian Ornithological Institute. The full article will be available from the authors. The video was made by Yoshio Ebihara. Also please send any comments on the video to the authors: János Oláh and Csaba Pigniczki


Circumstances of the observation in the Kiskunság National Park

We were birdwatching in the Kiskunság alkaline steppe which is the core area No. I. of the Kiskunság National Park. We were observing shorebirds (3000 Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax) and 400-500 Black-tailed Goodwits (Limosa limosa) alongside the road connecting Apaj and Ürbő. We were walking slowly alomg the canal towards the habitat reconstruction fishponds when (around 10.05) from south-west a rather small sized curlew flew across right in front of us. It wasn’t flying high and it was close, but it was in entire backlight. However we did not see colours and we could hardly judge the size of the lonly flying bird at the first glance, but its extremly short bill and shape suggested to János that it could be something very special, he was thinking Slender-billed Curlew straight away!

The bird in question started to descend and landed on a former paddy filed of Apaj, in the Perjés Haylands, 200-300 metres from us. We couldnt see it descending because of a ricedam. Arriving to the right place we did not find it straight away. After a few minutes tense waiting we spotted the feeding curlew in a fairly high vegetation on a wet meadow. We could observe it for 15 minutes and then it fluttered and flew away with other birds to north and descended in a former rice-plot. We hurried back and found it feeding again in the high vegetation. In order to be in perfect light we run to the road, meanwhile though we couldn’t follow the bird for 1-2 minutes. Standing on the road we started to search for the bird which dissapeared in the meantime. At this point János Oláh went back to the previous rice-plot through the last oservation site where he found the bird again in the company of three male Ruffs. After that only Csaba Pigniczki stayed in the area waitng for the other observers to arrive. They could not find the bird later in the day despite several hours search, not in the observation site nor its vicinity. It s also true however that the area is vast and there were thousands of waterbirds in the area. Also the Slender-billed Curlew while we observed were always feeding in high vegetation and often it was not visible at all.

We could observe thorougly the bird in flight and on the ground as well. We were well aware of the fact that our observation can be an important asset in the future since according to our knowledge this is the first observation in the world of the Slender-billed Curlew in the XXI. century. We tried to be very thorough and objective at the identification process, so it took us 35 minutes from the first sighting until the certain recognition. One member of the Japanese group birdwatching with us, Yoshio Ebihara recorded documentation in a videofilm through a telescope. Although it has not perfect quality due to the distance and the trembling of the warm air, it is still a big step from the previous observations of the Slender-billed Curlew documentated without any picture or video in Hungary. The Slender-billed Curlew was seen by only 9 persons. Out of the observers only János Oláh had previous experience of the field identification of the species. He has seen Slender-billed Curlews in Morocco (1994) and at Virágoskút- Fishpond, Hortobágy (1996). Akira Hibi and Csaba Pingniczki both have had extensive experience with several Numenius species worldwide although it was the first time for them to see Slander-billed Curlew.

The record was first rejected by the national Nomenclature Commitee referring to the well-known broken billed Eurasian Curlew nesting in the area. We were informed about the decision only in 2002, when we presented a complementary description, in which the broken billed Eurasian Curlew was described and ruled out. The broken-billed individual was known by us and it was entirely excludable. According to the videorecording and the description (plus complementary description) it was clarified that the broken billed Eurasian Curlew is not identical to the curlew seen on the 15th April 2001. Finally the observation was the was verified by the Nomenclature Commitee in 2005 and it bacame the first XXIst Century observation in the world of the Slender-billed Curlew in Hungary.

Weather conditiond were good, sunny April weather with cloudy spells. There was no precipitation. Light conditions were satisfactory during the observation. Warm front reached the Carpathian basin only on the 13th of April. In that day we have observed many relatively late, winter species as well, like Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus), Merlin (Falco columbarius) and Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor), which indicated strong north migration.


Detailed description of the Kiskunság bird

We could judge well the size of the Slender-billed Curlew because we saw it together with Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax) and Black-tailed Goodwits (Limosa limosa). Although we did not see it together with Whimbrels and Eurasian Curlews, but we have observed those two species in the area too. Eurasian Curlew was seen several times in the wider vicinity of the Slender-billed Curlew, but not in the same telescope view. According to the above mentioned we can state that it was a very small sized curlew, with an identical size of Black-tailed Godwit and it was just slightly larger than the male Ruff. Its whole appereance was more graceful, its position was more upright. According to its size and its bill length we assume that it was a male individual.

The Slender-billed Curlew observed was a very short billed bird, very similar to the last wintering individual in Marocco. Its short bill drew our attention for a thorough observation of this flying bird. We were able to specify this shortness of the bill of the curlew feeding in the ground: it was one and a half times longer than the head. The colour of the bill appeared almost steady dark, we could recognise only a small lighter coulor in the base of the lower mandible. The base of the bill was thick, but the rest was continuously narrowing, very slender. The arch of the bill was slight, it seemed almost straight from a distance. We did not notice any breakage in the arch of the bill. The bill was strongly different from the bill shape of a Whimbrel.

Colouration of this curlew is typical and we have found it important from the beginning of the observation. Basicly it is not brownish, it is rather pale greyish „cold” coloured bird differing strongly from the surroundig other species, and from the other two curlew species, too. The only warmer, brownish colour part was on the top of the head, which gave it a look with a „cap”. This look was enhanced further by the eyebrow. This field mark was observed on a Moroccan bird (and on skins) by János Oláh, most guide books do not mention this. None the less we observed this part thoroughly, we did not notice any crown stripe in this brown cap. The rest of the head was greyish, light, the throat was almost white, the lores were dark.

It was very difficult to observe the body and especially the belly of the feeding curlew on the ground, because it was moving mainly in higher vegetation. After flying up these parts of the bird were well visible. On the videorecording and especially on the still video grabs of the rising bird the underwing and the pattern of the under and upper wing can be well analysed. The underwing is snow white, only the primaries are darker from beneath. On the upper part of the wing it is well visible that the first and the second primaries have white shafts. The upperwing coverts are dark, technicaly they are the darkest part of the wing. The pattern and colour of the secondaries are typical, in contrast to the two other curlew species they get lighter towards the trailing edge and creat a well recognised pale wing panel. The combination of these light secondaries and white shaft of the primaries excludes the alboxillaris subspecies of the Whimbrel. The underwing is also snow-white of this subspecies, but we can exclude it on the grounds of the typical bill shape, headpattern and wingpattern. The subspecies orientalis of the Eurasian Curlew can also have snow-white underwing, but it is a large sized, typical billed and patterned, robust curlew.

The uppertail and rump was also definitely lighter than of the other two Numenius species. The number of stripes on the tail was also less, so the tail was far less striped than on Eurasian Curlew or a Whimbrel. That is why and also because of the flash white tailstripe, the tail seemed a good deal lighter.

On the bird flying up we could observe well with telescope the defining characteristics of the species, the very obvious spotting on the flanks. On the light coloured flanks the large black round spotts were striking. We could not make out the shape of the spots or specks because of the distance – thinking here of the heart-shape markings of the flank. These specks can be well made out on the paused videorecording too, but they are not as clear as they were in the field practically because of the quality of the digiscope recording. The markings or spotts of subtle lines on the neck becomes biger and biger specks towards the flanks. The throat, the belly and the flanks are light toned. The legs were dark and seemed shorter than of the two other species, because they were short and feathered above the tarsus. We did not hear its voice.

Typical behavior was rather faster (both moving and feeding) compared to the the other Numenius species in the area. It preferred the high vegetation and more wet areas for feeding in contrast to the Whimbrel and Eurasian Curlew feeding on the drier parts of the puszta. The high vegetation often hid almost entirely the small bird, we could mainly observe only its head, neck and back sometimes. It moved alone, did not seek for the company of other birds especially not other Numenius species. When we spotted, it flew alone into the area, too. Sometimes it got into the company of Ruffs.