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Sunday, August 5, 2012

It Has Begun...

It’s getting to be that time of year – birds breeding in the north are starting to meander their way down, stopping every so often before heading for tropical climes. Included among these migrants are some of my favorite birds, the shorebirds. I look forward to shorebirding season every year once the water levels at the major reservoirs drop low enough for expansive mudflats to form. But it’s still early in the season, and the mudflats haven’t quite formed yet, so James and I decided to check out the next best thing – the drying beds at the local water treatment plant.

After receiving permission to lift the huge metal gate, we began our drive past large vats of what I can only assume is water being treated (for what, I’ve got no idea). Despite the expanse concrete, we found plenty of birds – a Blue Grosbeak sang from a nearby field, and a huge mixed flock of European Starlings and Brown-headed Cowbirds of all ages whirled and whipped around as they foraged along the roadside. Barn Swallows and Purple Martins dipped low over the water hunting for various insects, but I tried to push them out of my mind. Those weren’t the birds we were looking for. Then I heard a couple of high-pitched screeches pierce the air. Shorebirds!

At first I could only see a small flock of Killdeer, vocalizing loudly each time they took to the air. But then I began to notice a couple smaller birds with them, and once they landed on a nice concrete ledge, I found myself looking at my first true migrant of the season: a nice Solitary Sandpiper, and then a second, working their way down the line, looking for prey down below. Between them, pumping its short tail the entire way, ran a smaller Spotted Sandpiper, already bereft of its namesake breeding plumage.

If they're called Solitary Sandpipers, how come I'm always finding them in twos and threes?

Both of these species are easy to find during both migrations, and the seasons last so long that it seems there’s only a couple weeks out of the summer where I can’t find one of these sandpipers. James and I were searching for those exclusively fall migrant shorebirds, the harbingers of the year’s end. While I was getting an eyeful of an extremely cooperative Solitary Sandpiper, I noticed a head pop up behind tufts of grass that grew between cracks in the concrete ledge. There’s no way I could mistake it – I see hundreds, if not thousands, each shorebirding season. The Pectoral Sandpipers were back in town!

And still as aggravating to photograph as ever....

We inched the car closer, trying to keep it in neutral so we could use it as a photography blind. But the Pecs weren’t having any of it. Before we got too close, they took off with a couple of Killdeer and headed for one of the drying beds on the far side. You won’t find two more skittish shorebirds than these, and pretty soon they’ll be the bane of my shorebirding, taking huge flocks of birds with them when they flush a hundred feet away from you. For now though, I’m just happy the shorebirds are back. Here’s to three fruitful months of poring over peeps in worn plumage, trying to check the leg color on far-off pipers, and exploring the minutiae between specks in the distance. Here’s to shorebirding!

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