Running through the mythologies of tribes and cultures in all corners of our planet are common themes, threads of inspiration that bind us across oceans, deserts and even time. One of the most recurrent threads is that of the quest, the search for something precious that requires a journey into the unknown of foreign lands and the courage to seek what has been lost or not yet discovered.
Whether it is a Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail or a Lost World, Jason, Sinbad or the Knights of the Round Table the quest is an unfulfilled and integral part of our psyche. You may think that in the twenty first century there is no place for the quest and it has been consigned to history and Hollywood but not so, for whisper it quietly a new quest has begun this very year, one that needs courage and the unswerving belief that all is never lost as well as a decent set of optics and a good knowledge of Numenius biometrics.
The Quest to find The Slender-billed Curlew has begun and across the world heroes are girding their loins and polishing their Zeiss in readiness. Billed as the ‘Last Big Push’ this winter sees the beginning of a globally coordinated effort to find evidence that may help to bring back Slender-billed Curlew from the edge of the abyss of extinction.
The first ever coordinated search of the potential non-breeding grounds of the Slender-billed Curlew is now underway. For about a decade there have been no verified records of this Critically Endangered Bird, the rarest in the Western Palearctic. The search is focussed on areas where the Slender-billed Curlew may winter or undertake autumn moult so that the birds may be present long enough to deploy the international catching and satellite tagging team (there are four tags available, including three funded by AEWA).
The search includes some level of coverage in more than fifty former and potential range states from Morocco to the subcontinent, with countries, such as Greece, establishing national Slender-billed Curlew Working Groups to facilitate the search.
A Slender-billed Curlew Expedition Fund, based on contributions from the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme/British Birdwatching Fair, is supporting searches this midwinter by national teams in Algeria and international teams in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Libya has raised its own funds for a search. Sudan is covered thanks to funding from SOF, BirdLife in Sweden. Funds are being sought for Djibouti and Somaliland.
International volunteers are assisting IWC teams in Italy, Greece and Turkey among other countries. Every middle-eastern country is also being searched, as are India (especially Gujarat), Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The Croatian Institute of Ornithology is coordinating a spring search of the whole Adriatic and CMS/AEWA may feature an international Slender-billed Curlew during World Migratory Bird Day on 8-9 May. The Slender-billed Curlew Expedition Fund also hopes to contribute to some searches for potential autumn moult sites around the Aral, Caspian, Azov and Black Seas.
The International Waterbird Census (IWC) provides the main framework for the search but to ensure coverage of this huge area, the search depends on international volunteer bird identification experts, well equipped with telescopes and digital photographic, video and sound recording equipment. Such birders may coordinate with the IWC counters, mount their own expeditions or simply take time during other fieldwork, or holidays to suitable areas, to keep an eye out for the bird.
A Slender-billed Curlew identification leaflet, designed for taking into the field is available in English, German, Russian Kazakhstan, Bulgarian, Greek , Italian, French, Arabic, Persian, Croatian and Romanian. Videos and sound recordings of the bird from its last regular wintering site in Morocco are also available.
Any fresh report of a potential Slender-billed Curlew will be assessed within 24 hours by the SBC International Verification Panel and the national bird rarities committee where such exists. If there is insufficient evidence to confirm identification a bird photographer and sound recordist will travel to collect more information as necessary. The aim is to deploy the Slender-billed Curlew catching and satellite tagging teams within 48 hours of a report.
In September, a Slender-billed Curlew Workshop, held during the International Wader Study Group conference in the Netherlands, discussed four draft protocols on: search methods (with involvement of Wetlands International and WIWO, Foundation Working Group International Wader And Waterfowl Research), catching/handling/tagging (British Trust for Ornithology), ecological observations (RSPB) and captive breeding (Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust).
Even if the search is unsuccessful in terms of finding the Slender-billed Curlew, it looks set to provide a number of other long term conservation benefits, including capacity building on bird identification. In other words whilst you may not find the Holy Grail you can still help create a green and pleasant land in which other species have a better chance of living happily ever after. Searchers will also record any other Globally Threatened Birds encountered, such as Sociable Lapwing, Northern Bald Ibis, Siberian Crane and Red-breasted Goose and also the threatened steppe-breeding subspecies of Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata sushkini and Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris, which can be confused with Slender-billed Curlew.
You may never wear the hat as well as Indiana Jones but if you are interested in participating in the search, or may be able to help narrow the search by submitting any past (possible) Slender-billed Curlew records, please contact the Chair of the Slender-billed Working Group firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details visit: www.slenderbilledcurlew.net.