Thursday, August 22, 2013

Guest Post: Sandpipers!

The countdown to 200 life birds for my son, Evan, was more of an excuse to get out and do some birding than it was to reach that milestone.  But summer is a tough time to see birds, let alone add any new ones to the list.  Just as we had seen about everything there was to see in our area, fall shorebird migration had started.

Evan was sitting at lifer #196 when we decided to check out some local sewage treatment ponds.  The ponds were definitely active with lots of Canada Geese and migrating Franklin's Gulls, but I wasn't seeing anything new or out of the ordinary.
Franklin's Gull
Finally, though, as I scanned the pond, I saw a small shorebird quickly moving back and forth and in circles. It appeared to be a phalarope of some sort.  Not knowing my shorebirds real well, I took several photos to be able to identify the bird later.  It turned out to be the Red-necked Phalarope!  This was a good bird for our area and lifer #197 for Evan.
Red-necked Phalarope
Not long after our encounter with the Red-necked Phalarope, we were driving home from a family trip when I spied a large pond with exposed banks.  It looked ripe for shorebirds.  I couldn't see anything when I cruised by, but after stopping and searching more carefully I found about a dozen Pectoral Sandpipers. Life bird #198.
Pectoral Sandpiper
With only two birds left to get to the big number, we were anxious to get out some more to find a couple of new birds.  We didn't have to wait long because a couple days later one of my birding friends called me saying he had found a few Buff-breasted Sandpipers in a field just a few miles from our town.  At the time I didn't realize that this was a significant find, but I should have been clued in because another birder friend left work early to go see these sandpipers. I later discovered that the last time these birds had been seen in our county was over a decade ago.

We went out to the location which was a muddy area with a few puddles surrounded by grass.
Evan watching the shorebird activity
There were a lot of shorebirds.  We saw dozens of Killdeer which is a common summer resident in our area. Additionally we saw Pectoral Sandpipers and Least Sandpipers, but we didn't see the Buff-breasted Sandpipers.
Least Sandpiper
It was certainly fun to see these migrants moving through.  As we watched them, we had a surprise visitor drop in from the sky - the Upland Sandpiper!  This was lifer #199 for Evan.
Upland Sandpiper
As hard as we tried, though, we still could not find those Buff-breasted Sandpipers.  We decided to give up and head home. But sitting at #199 haunted us, especially since the magic number could be out in that field we had just visited.  So we went back in the evening for one more try.  Again, all we saw were Leasts, Pectorals, and Killdeer.  The Upland Sandpiper wasn't even around anymore.  Just as we were about to give up, Ron Erpelding, one of Minnesota's best birders, showed up because he had heard the report of the Buff-breasted Sandpipers too. Ron set up his Swarovski spotting scope and quickly went to work scanning the short grass beyond the mudflat.  He told us that Buff-breasteds wouldn't be in the mud we were watching.  Within minutes of getting there, Ron had located the Buff-breasted Sandpipers far from where we were!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

It was an impressive #200 for Evan's list.  Without Ron's experienced eyes, we never would have found it. As Ron said, when the bird stops moving in the brown grass, it is very hard to see.  In fact, there is one pictured below if you can believe it.
Can you find the Buff-breasted Sandpiper in this photo?
Four species of sandpipers in one day was a real treat.  I had never really been into shorebirds, but this experience has turned me onto them.  I am eager to keep getting out to see what new migrants will stop by on their way south.

Josh Wallestad writes about his birding adventures with his 6-year-old son, Evan, at A Boy Who Cried Heron.  

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