Friday, June 13, 2014

June Shorebirding, Sans-tundra

Michigan is blessed with some incredible shorebird stop-over habitat, thanks in no small part to our monstrous, sea-like lakes. April and May are always fun for the massive push of northbound birds, while July through October is the leisurely time to catch them all trickling back south. There's really only about a five or six week period centered on June that falls between the end of spring migration and the beginning of fall migration for shorebirds. That's when many of these birds are in the high arctic, laying eggs on the tree-less tundra. It's also when they look their best. The alternate (breeding) plumage for some of the shorebirds is simply exquisite. Sometimes late in the spring or early in the fall (which is actually mid-summer according to the shorebird calendar) we'll spot some that are nearly fully molted into alternate plumage or not yet molted out of it, but most of the time they're something like 70% "colored-up" in the spring, or badly worn and tattered in the summer.
Spotted Sandpipers having a discussion at Tawas Point (Sarah Adams photo)
This year, Sarah and I took an excursion to northern Michigan on the first weekend of June and were lucky enough to catch two of our favorite species lingering later than usual and showing off their best summer formal wear. Sarah got some great photos, some of which I'm sharing here.
Piping Plover sporting the latest leg jewelry and piping at Tawas Point (Kirby Adams photo)
Our first stop was at Tawas Point State Park on Lake Huron. Tawas Point is a notable migrant trap, renowned for its May warblers, but shorebirding there can be excellent. We got to see a couple of the critically endangered Great Lakes population of Piping Plover which have regularly nested on the beaches at Tawas Point for the past several years. There were plenty of Spotted Sandpipers, also summer nesters here, cavorting in the lagoons and bobbing their rear-ends at everything that passed.
Sanderlings stopping over at Tawas Point (Kirby Adams photo)
Most of the migrants had moved on, of course, but an expected group of Semipalmated Sandpipers lingered, along with a few Sanderlings who were changing into their striking breeding plumage.

Semipalmated Sandpiper (Sarah Adams photo)
But the highlight at the point was a group of Ruddy Turnstones dressed to kill. (Not literally, unless you're an amphipod living under a beach pebble...then the turnstones most definitely are destined to kill you.) This has been Sarah's favorite shorebird since long before we had ever seen one and they were nothing more than fascinating pictures in the field guides. Our lifer came by random chance one fine mid-May day at Metzger Marsh in Ohio. Since then, we've seen dozens, if not hundreds, mostly in Florida where many of them winter. I remember a particularly hefty flock of them on a mudflat in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge one January. But all of those were in their basic (non-breeding) plumage. We just don't encounter them in alternate plumage much, mostly because we spend little time in the far north.
Ruddy Turnstone, probably upset with the lack of stones to turn (Sarah Adams photo)
Ruddy Turnstones - leaving no stone un-turned and no crustacean un-consumed (Sarah Adams photo)
After taking our leave of the stragglers at Tawas Point, we headed to Lake Superior's southeast corner to see what was going on at Whitefish Point. There we braved a cold and blustery pebble-filled beach to spy another couple Piping Plovers, Sanderlings, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. But rather than turnstones, the treat here was one of MY favorite shorebirds, an American Golden Plover. This is quite a rare bird for June in Michigan, and this specimen was looking fine in his breeding colors.
American Golden Plover, Whitefish Point (Sarah Adams photo)
A close examination through the scope revealed a bloody wound on the plover's shoulder, but it didn't appear to impede his flight as he crossed the point in the air right in front of us. Merlins like to hang out and nab small shorebirds at Whitefish Point, so it's possible this individual got in a tussel and fought a falcon to a draw. Regardless, it wasn't seen either before or after the day we were there, and I'd like to think he's above the Arctic Circle enjoying round-the-clock sun right now. I'm just glad he was slow enough with his migratory travels to let me have a look at him without having to drive to Nunavut.
American Golden Plover, Whitefish Point (Kirby Adams photo)

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