Saturday, September 13, 2014

Buff-breasted Sandpipers in the Buff

Birders are prone to proclaiming their favorite bird to be either the specimen of their most recent crushing sighting or the next expected bird on a big trip. Taking the latter route, I have to say Buff-breasted Sandpipers (Calidris subruficollis) are my favorite sandpiper and one of my favorite all-around birds.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)
Buffies aren't particularly common migrants here in the Great Lakes, but they aren't particularly common anywhere. Their population hasn't been well studied, but it seems likely there are only 20,000 to 50,000 individuals on the planet today. Breeding on shorelines of the high arctic, they winter on the pampas of South America. That migratory route sends them through the Great Plains of North America where they frequent grassy fields, often invisibly.
Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Whitefish Point, Michigan (Kirby Adams photo)
In these parts, we find them in...well, grassy fields (read: airports), but they're also regulars on some of our dry and pebbly beaches. Buffies tend to use the same migratory stop-overs from year to year, so if you find some this fall it would be worth checking the same spot in the same week the next year.
Blending in at Whitefish Point (Kirby Adams photo)
My lifer Buff-breasted Sandpipers were a pair I found at Whitefish Point on Lake Superior a few years ago. I was immediately smitten with their sharp look, nearly tame behavior, and soft buffy coloration that acted as remarkable camouflage on the famous sand-and-pebble beach at Whitefish Point.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)
That tameness nearly got the species extinct a hundred years ago. Hunting impacted nearly all shorebirds, but Buff-breasted Sandpipers seemed to suffer worse than most. As far back as 1927, the ornithologist William Rowan, in describing the waders (the European term for what we in the Americas call shorebirds) of Alberta, attributed the near-demise of Calidris (then Tryngites) subruficollis to its tameness and tendency of individuals to stay with wounded flockmates. A hunter could blast a bird and take out a dozen more who stopped to check on the wounded bird.
Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)
Millions of birds had been reduced to only a few thousand by the 1920's. The population has recovered, but may be declining again due to habitat loss on migratory route and wintering grounds, as well as climate change impacts on the breeding grounds.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers are unique among North American shorebirds in showing true lekking behavior, though you'd have to travel extremely far north in May or June to see it. Great Snipe and Ruff in the old world are the only other shorebirds known to lek. Not being particularly showy birds, the lekking display of the male involves lots of jumping and wing flashing. Apparently showing off flashes of their pristine white underparts is what gets the females most excited. I really need to see a Buff-breasted lek some day. That just went on my birding bucket list.
Showing some of that white underwing (Kirby Adams photo)
This past week I got what Frank Izaguirre would call my "lifelook" Buff-breasted Sandpiper. One had been showing off and on for more than a week at an unlikely location: the breakwall in the harbor of Marquette, Michigan. I happened to be in town and strolled out to see it.
A feast of midges! (Photo by Sarah Adams)
Buffies are more comfortable in fields and on beaches that aren't surrounded by deep water, but there was a colossal hatch of midges that had a lot of birds showing interest in the concrete breakwall. After getting a couple hundred meters onto the wall, not one, but TWO of these beautiful birds appeared and strutted around for a bit. After some good looks, they took off, flying far out onto the rocky portion of the wall. We birders turned around to return to shore and shortly came upon FIVE Buff-breasteds blocking our path. Unless the originally two stealthily doubled-back, there were now seven of the birds out there.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)
At one point, one of them approached to within a meter of my feet. You can't ask for a better view than that.

Several days later the winds turned to the north and Lake Superior unleashed her fury in a storm that sent waves right over the wall. I imagine by the time dawn arrived on that stormy morning my Buffies were on the move. Uruguay or bust!
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

In Honor of World Shorebirds Day

Piping plover at Reid State Park, Maine 2014
 This weekend I am participating in World Shorebird's Day. From September 5-7th I will be out counting birds at four different sites in my area and submitting those counts to eBird. They will simultaneously go to the World Shorebird's database as well as scientist and citizens set out to document and appreciate shorebirds world wide. Many species of shorebirds are endangered due to loss of habitat and other environmental hazards. I want to do my part to help preserve these species so that others will be able to see and appreciate these amazing birds for years to come. Here are a few photos of some of the shorebirds I have seen in my travels across the United States. Click on the links below for more info or to visit my blog.

Piping Plover Chick on Plum Island, MA 2014

Sign posted at Reid State park to protect critical nesting sites.

Semipalmated Plover Revere Beach, MA 2011

Sanderlings at Harkness Memorial Park, CT 2011

Least Sandpiper, Tucson, AZ 2009

Solitary Sandpiper, Portland, ME 2014

Greater Yellowlegs, Cape Cod, 2011

Dunlin, Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, NJ 2013

Willet, Cape Cod, MA 2011

Black-necked Stilt, Tucson, AZ 2008

American Oystercatchers, Chatham, MA 2011

Killdeer, Killingly, CT 2014

Snowy Egret, Gilbert Water Ranch, AZ 2012

Dunlin and sandpipers, Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA 2011

American Avocets, Lake Cochise, Willcox, AZ 2013

Mixed Flock of shorebirds at the Salton Sea, CA 2012

Long-billed Curlews at sunset on Lake Cochise, Willcox, AZ 2013


Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Last Bird of Summer - Least But Not least

The Least Bittern is a bird that is certainly a regular inhabitant of the ubiquitous marshes that dot the prairie landscape of where I live in west-central Minnesota.  Yet I had never seen one.  This is due to the bird being so secretive and elusive and its habitat being so thick and uninviting that our small contingent of county birders rarely bump into it.

Late this summer the army of metro birders in the Twin Cities were flocking to the Wood Lake Nature Center where two very cooperative Least Bitterns were being seen from a boardwalk that cuts right through the middle of the large marsh on the Nature Center's property.  Pictures of these birds were spamming up the Facebook page of the Minnesota Birding group.  It was a rare opportunity indeed to see such a bird up close and unafraid of pedestrians.  Despite this, the two-hour trip was just too far to go for a bird I could probably see someday within just a few miles of home.  But as luck would have it, I had to attend a three-day training for work in St. Paul, so I was able to get over to the Wood Lake Nature Center and see this bird for myself.  And what a delight it was to get this lifer with unobstructed views from just six feet away!

My whole family was with me on this adventure.   As a bonus to this lifer, my son got to meet one his field guide author/photographer idols who was watching and photographing this bird right alongside us.  Stop over at A Boy Who Cried Heron for the rest of the story.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Who's Migrating Now and What's To Come!

Common Nighthawk
Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

Don and our Corgi, Abby, watching for nighthawks from our deck.

We live in southern New Hampshire and the Common Nighthawk migration through here has been spectacular. We are lucky because nighthawks migrate past our deck since they often follow river corridors and our property fronts on a dammed up section of a river. We have seen over 2,000 nighthawks so far. Nighthawks are listed as endangered in our state and their populations nationwide are in decline so it's very rewarding to see them in such numbers here.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and other hummingbirds are migrating now. This is a female who was feeding on our Salvia "Lady in Red" flowers in a planter on our deck. Soon they will be gone from our area. Hate to see them go.

Semipalmated Plover

Western Sandpiper

Shorebirds are still migrating. Check Coastal and other water areas in your favorite birding locations and see who you can find.

What is to come next?

Broad-winged Hawks in a "kettle" (juv. left, adult, right) on a rising thermal of air.

Hawk migration is about to happen. This is one of our favorite birding activities and we spend the fall at Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory in southern NH. The big push of Broad-winged Hawks occurs from about Sept. 10 to 20th in our area. On a favorable day with thermals and mild NW winds we can see thousands in a day. Other raptors such as Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks, Northern Harriers, Merlins, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels and eagles will continue migrating through much of the fall. 

Photo above is from our newest field guide, The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, coming Oct. 14th! This pocket sized guide covers 250 species with beautiful large photos. In a few instances there are composite photos, such as the above one of the Broad-winged Hawks, which I photographed from Pack Monadnock. The book will be great for beginning and intermediate birders, and even non-birders! 

Happy fall bird migration watching everyone!

Lillian Stokes

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Great White Heron - Ardea herodias occidentalis

We are accustomed to seeing white wading birds in our south Florida back yard lake. The most common of these is the White Ibis. Adults are mostly white, with black wingtips.

Not herons but rather more closely related to spoonbills, they have strikingly red bill and legs.

 White Ibis 2-20110330

During mating season, around the middle of winter, the males squabble to establish dominance.

White Ibis squabble 20121230

Tactile feeders, the ibis probes into the mud and clamps down upon prey. This one just caught a crayfish.

Ibis With Crayfish 20090906

Egrets are also common. Great Egrets might be seen at any time. They are sight feeders and either wait patiently or stalk for prey such as small fish, crustaceans and insects. 

Great Egret 2-20091129

They are quite wary, and I find it difficult to obtain a closeup. Note the long bright orange-yellow bill and all-black legs.

Great Egret 20100930

The smaller Snowy Egret appears sporadically. A  more restless feeder, it quickly traverses the shoreline in search of food. Its bill is black and its "golden slippers" contrast with mostly black legs. It startles prey by stirring the water with its yellow feet.

Snowy Egret 20100524

Even smaller is the Cattle Egret, distinguished by its short yellow bill and dark legs. Rather than hunting in the water, it searches our garden for insects and lizards.

Cattle Egret 2-20101222

The Cattle Egret develops rusty plumes on its head and breast during breeding season.

Cattle Egret 20090118

We usually have Little Blue Herons on the lake, but most are dark adults. During their first year they are white, and we must take a closer look to postively identify them. Deliberate hunters, they seem to be near-sighted as they walk slowly with their bills almost touching the water (or the grass, as this one is after a dragonfly). Greenish legs and a light bill with a dark tip are distinctive features.

Little Blue Heron Immature 3-20090529

Less common, especially in recent years, is the Wood Stork. A tactile feeder, it slowly moves along with half-open bill. Like the Snowy Egret, it stirs the water with its feet, which are bubble-gum pink.

Wood Stork Stirring Water 20081026

Rare indeed is the visitor which occasioned this post. Look closely and compare it with the white waders described above. 

Great White Heron 2-20140812

It is a "Great White Heron,"  a subspecies of the Great Blue Heron. Admittedly, I almost passed it off as a Great Egret when I first saw it across the lake. However it seemed bulkier and had a habit of roosting in one spot for a long time, even up to an hour, so I took a closer look. This was my first photo, which confirmed my suspicions.

Great White Heron 2-20140811

Known to breed in Cuba and some of the Caribbean Islands as well as the Yucatan Peninsula and on islands off the coast of Venezuela, the Great White Heron's North American range is almost exclusively limited to the Florida Keys and the tip of the Florida south of Miami. 

Its upper mandible is dark, contrasting with the orange lower bill, quite identical to the common "blue" form of the Great Blue Heron.This bird's thighs are light, and its lower legs are darker but not black.

Great White Heron (Ardea_herodias_occidentalis) 20140811

Great White Heron portrait 20140811

This bird was earlier considered to be a variant color morph of the nominate Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias herodias), but is actually a distinct subspecies, Ardea herodias occidentalis. The blue and white subspecies occasionally interbreed. 

Since Great Egrets are sometimes misidentified as Great White Herons, I had the unusual opportunity to photograph both individually from the same distance, walking across a lawn on the opposite side of the lake. Both photos were taken at a range of 140 meters and nearly the same angle. They exhibit the larger size and more robust body of the Great White Heron.

Great White Heron at 140 meters:

Great White Heron walking at 140 meters 20140818

Great Egret at 140 meters:

 Great Egret walking at 140 meters 20140818 

The Great White Heron prefers coastal waters and rarely ventures north of its habitual range, but has been documented along the Atlantic into New England and even Canada. Inland sightings are quite rare. Our home is 18 miles away from the ocean, and this was the first one to visit our yard.

The Great White Heron spent much time on our back lawn, visiting five days over a nine day period in the middle of August . It came so close that even after I backed away I could not fit the entire bird in the video frame!