Among the small delights of spring are all the firsts, the initial sightings of various migratory birds: first robin, first red-winged blackbird, first meadowlark. Driving home a few evenings ago, I spotted another first — my first long-billed curlew of the season.
Curlews aren’t uncommon to the foothills of south-central Montana, but they’re not one of the regular residents, either. I’m always delighted to spy a curlew. Every sighting of one of these winsome wanderers of the grasslands triggers a singular memory.
It was a warm evening in late June. I rode in the back of the pickup with a mongrel dog and my younger sister. The shadows were long on a gently waving sea of emerald grasses. Black angus cows grazed placidly in the pasture. At the wheel of the pickup my dad steered slowly through the herd, assessing the animals’ health, but mostly, I think, enjoying one of those serene, soulful moments that made the long hours and short wages of ranch life worthwhile.
Suddenly, two birds erupted from the grass in front of the bumper. “Curlee, curlew” came their calls from beaks the length of which I’d never seen on any feathered creature. The pair flew eastward for a short distance, then banked and came swooping back over the pickup so close it seemed I might reach up and pluck one from the sky.
The memory of those buff, mottled forms is still as sharp and salient as it was on that magical evening nearly four decades ago. It’s shaping up to be a good summer. I’ve already spied a curlew.