Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Prairie Shorebirds I

Shorebirds make me want to puke....with glee. Semipalmated and Baird's (top) Sandpipers on their way south from the high Arctic.

Hello Piping Plover. What it do?

I'll be the first to admit, I've kind of always had a shorebird fetish. Pretty wild and crazy I know. They were the first group of birds I really got enthusiastic about learning to identify and sort through...well, ducks were the first, but they were too easy. I grew up in coastal Ventura County, north of Los Angeles County in southern California, which has a number of good shorebird spots. There was always stuff to look for. More than once I managed over 30 different shorebird species in a day, which I reckon is difficult to do anywhere, and not something I've done anywhere else.

Shorebirds are great. For one, not only do we have a large diversity of them in the United States, but unlike flashier birds (i.e. warblers) some people can't even handle them. They are an acquired taste. And when confronted with separating Least, Western, Semipalmated, Baird's and White-rumped Sandpipers as a beginning birder...I can see why. Appreciating shorebirds is all about subtleties...from how to identify Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers to the subtle and intricate patterns that the birds wear themselves.

Always mellow on their wintering grounds, Willets turn into ferocious beasts on the prairie. Watch out, they go for the eyes.

Another reason birders hesitate to embrace our long-legged friends is that it can be bloody hard to approach these things. Looking through a flock of small birds half mile away on a mudflat is not actually fun, whether you have a scope or not. Thus it can be hard to get to know these birds, so to speak, to get to know their habits and personalities. And how can we appreciate something we don't know?

One of the birding perks in North Dakota are the number of shorebirds here, both migrants and breeders. But its the nesting birds that get ones attention....because they hate you. They want you to die. They would like to probe the inside of your skull with those long beaks. When you are close to a shorebird nest out here, most species will let you know by A) Making incredibly annoying sounds, B) Attacking you or C) Both. The snipe and the Spotted Sandpipers are discreet, but the others are not. Any experienced birder knows the agony of trying to watch shorebirds with a nervous Killdeer around...they are about as fun as listen to as a car alarm. When a Killdeer gets scared, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of other birds in the area tune in and take off, since they often use the Killdeer as a kind of watchdog (watchplover). It's quite frustrating.

Repeated attempts to rechristen Marbled Godwits as Garbled Modwits by dyslexic members of the birding community have failed.

Shorebirds also have good timing. Spring migration can last from March until June, and fall migration June until as late as November in some areas. They are always on the move, and can turn up anywhere...many species are prone to vagrancy...Little Stints, a Lesser Sand-Plover and a Curlew Sandpiper in California this year have left birders drooling and incapable of speech for days.* Several have reported to have spontaneously shat themselves upon viewing these remarkable birds, all of which I believe were in breeding plumage. In past years I have seen two of these three, but my underwear have remained mysteriously untainted.

I guess what we're ultimately dealing with here at BB&B today is a bunch of the shorebirds that you can find in the prairie states. As you all know, there are others...I'll put up the next installment soon. Ok.

*Some refer to this trend of Eurasian shorebirds appearing in the United States as "The Siberian Express". You can expect large amounts of ridicule should you choose to utter this phrase in mixed company.

Wilson's Snipes are abundant nesters on the prairie, but they hate being photographed generally. It took two months to get this picture! Oh right, I'm not a photographer...that explains it.

Thankfully, Lesser Yellowlegs migrate through the area in small numbers. In the foreground, a Red-necked Phalarope (left) and a few Wilson's lurk.

In the center (or perhaps the "centre") is a female Wilson's Phalarope, still in her bright breeding colors...drabber males and molting females are in the background. A Killdeer managed a good photobomb though.


  1. Garbled Modwit makes way more sense than Marbled Godwit. Perhaps that was the original name before the dyslexics got ahold of it.

  2. they nauseate me with delight also...

  3. This blog is awesome! How are the Sandhill Cranes where you are? We saw a few from our truck in eastern Wyoming on this last tour...up the nature punx!

  4. What it do indeed! That piping plover is so cute it hurts!

  5. This is lovely; very nice pictures.

  6. @Street Eaters! What are you doing here? Nature punx definitely get backed hard around these parts. Apparently there are no cranes here in summer, but I'm told Whooping Cranes migrate though in the fall...I'll be back in the bay by then though (thank god).

    @Elizabeth - Yeah, I have no clue where the word "godwit" came from...thats definitely not the sound they make.

    @Lexiepoo - I knew you'd like that. More plovers soon, I promise.

    @Toyin - Thanks!!!

    @Flicker - Glad youre still here! More bloggage please.

  7. Photobomb, hahaha. Those Killdeer can be real turds.