Like looking for a needle in an entire field of haystacks, volunteers and scientists will fan out across Europe, Africa and Asia this winter to try to find a rare bird species that has not been seen in nearly a decade.

The critically endangered, possibly extinct, slender-billed curlew (Numenius tenuirostris) was last observed in 2001. Even before that, it was rarely seen. Only one curlew nest has ever been discovered, and that was in Siberia a century ago. The birds used to winter in Morocco, but they last appeared there in 1995.

And so, in a quest to find this "lost" species, the Slender-billed Curlew Working Group of the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB) will soon coordinate a massive effort to try to locate any curlews that might remain. The search will cover more than 35 countries, including Morocco, Egypt, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Italy, Greece, India and Sri Lanka. Numerous other organizations have signed on to fund some of this research, although many volunteers will have to pay their own way.

If anyone actually manages to find one of the birds, a rapid-response team will swoop down to try to catch it and fit it with a satellite tracking device that could then, theoretically, lead researchers to the curlew's spring nesting site. This, in turn, could allow researchers to create a species recovery program for the curlew.

"If our dreams come true, then we may be able to save this bird, and prevent the first extinction of a European bird since the disappearance of the Canary Islands oystercatcher, three decades ago," Nicola Crockford, chair of the Slender-billed Curlew Working Group, told Wildlife Extra.

One of the tools that questers will have available is an MP3 file of the only known recording of a slender-billed curlew's call. Created by the British Trust for Ornithology, the audio file multiplies the call of a single curlew to create an approximation of the sound of an entire flock of birds.

For information on identifying a slender-billed curlew, download this pdf. To participate in this curlew quest, visit the RSPB's project page.

Image: Slender-billed curlew, photo by Chris Gomersall. Courtesy of RSPB