Tuesday, August 07, 2007
On Saturday morning I brought Dottie and Sylvia to Nine Springs for a lesson on shorebird identification. Though both are avid birders and excellent at identifying songbirds, shorebirds have migrated each spring and fall off their radar. Luckily there were nearly a dozen shorebird species at Nine Springs to study at fairly close range. Confident I could identify all the shorebirds we might come across, I quickly ran into a different problem. I rely so much on birding by GISS (general impression, size and shape) that I find it a little difficult to translate a near instantaneous identification into words that describe the particular characteristics, field marks and behavior - which are important, which aren't. Many birds that are instantly recognizable are nevertheless difficult to describe, like a Bay-breasted Warbler, for example.
We studied several Least Sandpipers, Semiplamated Sandpipers and had fun watching a Semipalmated Plover wiggle its foot causing nearby invertebrates to move, be detected and eaten. A Song Sparrow foraged near a Least Sandpiper to give an idea just how tiny some shorebird species are. Looking through my scope, I announced, “Alright, new bird. Those two shorebirds over there on the point are Baird's Sandpipers.” Looking at the species for the first time, they were amazed how quickly I made the ID. As I said, both of them are first-rate field birders and can aim their binoculars at any CFW (confusing fall warbler) and nail the ID in a matter of seconds. But some birders just avoid shorebirds. I think if you can learn fall plumaged warblers, you can learn shorebirds – the skills are essentially the same.
I remember when I was a new birder the four groups that presented the biggest ID challenge were gulls, sparrows, shorebirds and fall warblers. Perhaps an encouraging aspect of identifying shorebirds is that they represent a comparatively small number of species that can be found at a given habitat at any time here in Wisconsin. During the apex of fall migration, there may be as many as 12 to 18 shorebird species present a particular location (perhaps more at Horicon NWR). On a good migration day along the stream corridor of Pheasant Branch, there can be as many as 75 or more songbird species, and birders quickly categorize birds into more manageable groups like warbler, thrush, vireo, flycatcher, wren, etc. and enhance the ID from there.
Do I run through a series of mental steps when identifying shorebirds and quickly separate them into groups like plovers, peeps, medium-sized sandpipers and large shorebirds? Not really, but I think this is useful for beginners. For me, a casual glance through binoculars or a spotting scope and the ID is made. This comes from having spent a lot of time looking at shorebirds (photography helps, of course). Some shorebirds are singular. For example, I think it would be unlikely to misidentify a Black-necked Stilt or American Avocet. The birds I think present the greatest challenge to the new shorebirder are peeps; Least, Semipalmated, Western, Baird's, Sanderling, White-rumped, etc.
At the end of our Nine Springs shorebird study, we logged ten species: Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Killdeer and Semiplamated Plover. To some extent, I think both Dottie and Sylvia felt like shorebirds were demystified – they are, in fact, identifiable.
All images © 2007 Mike McDowell