Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Rockpipers Are The New Sandpipers

With new camera in hand, the other day I followed up on legendary Venturan Don DesJardin's report of good shorebird concentrations on one of the local Ventura beaches. It was not hard to find the large flock of courageous rockpipers ravenously feeding on mole crabs along the sandy shore. No matter how many annoying people and off-leash dogs came through the area, the birds would continue to move from a short breakwater to the adjacent beach to feed. They even tolerated the girl who wandered down the breakwater to the edge of the flock to photograph them with a point-and-shoot. This was a great source of stress for me and created an inner dialogue of many expletives.

Eventually I figured out the birds' routine and staked out a spot on the beach. They quickly realized that I was not a threat; just there TO CRUSH THEM INTO OBLIVION. That worked fine for them, because at that point all they on their minds was decimating the local marine invertebrates that tried pitifully to escape into the wet sand. The tattler's longer bill seemed like a good match for the crabs, but even the snub-nosed turnstones and surfbirds were plunging their faces into the sand and coming up with struggling invertebrates that knew their brief existences were about to end. The slaughter was almost too much to bear.

It was a magnificent morning, uninterrupted by other birders and photographers who came to swarm the site the next day.

In all my previous years of shorebirding, I've seen Surfbirds feeding away from rocky shores maybe twice. It was hard to reconcile the flock of Wandering Tattlers, Surfbirds, Black and Ruddy Turnstones, and single Red Knot (?!) hammering the sandy beach like they did it every day of every year. Most of the Surfbirds were still in breeding plumage, but this duder was well on its way to the basic grays of winter.

It was a bit strange watching Surfbirds plunge their stubby bills into the sand for succulent mole crab goodness, but their facial handicap did not seem to do deter them. Of course, they looked good doing it.

I cannot claim to know what the Surfbird was doing to attain this strange posture. Judging by how intimidated I was while cowering behind my camera, it was a little-known (and highly effective) threat display specific to birders.

Out of the local rockpiper community, Wandering Tattler is both the least common and least approachable species. They can be a pain in the ass just to find, let alone photograph, so I found myself getting emotional when tattlers decked out in full alternate plumage would trot within 20 feet of me while playing "Sanderling" with the waves.

All that fine patterning is something else. In a couple months they will all be in a Willetesque winter disguise.

They seemed right at home feeding in the sand, constantly picking out mole crabs. If you thought that this one looked like it was bringing me a crab as a gift, you would be absolutely correct. I will cherish it always.

Don't know how I got this picture.

It has been years since I've found tattlers this cooperative, and I never thought I would have the divine luck of finding a bunch of tame ones while I had a camera in hand. The bird gods have been kind. I always like to study these birds when I can, to be on top of my game for when the next Gray-tailed Tattler appears in my binoculars. I did hear one atypical Wandering vocalization on this day, but it was nothing like the golden-ploveresque mellowness that a Gray-tailed chirps when alarmed.

Unlike the usually-wary tattlers, Black Turnstones are not quite as skiddish. When the Red Knot, Surfbirds and tattlers were too far out, I would turn to my old and reliable turnstone friends and attempt to wreak photographic havoc.

Nothing strikes more fear into the admittedly small heart of a mole crab like the vibrations of a Black Turnstone landing on the sand above them.

Luckily for the mole crabs, this fear is short-lived. Literally.

Of course Ruddy Turnstones are no strangers to sandy shores, but we love them all the same. Ruddy Turnstones are truly successful species...the only Californian rockpiper that is on both sides of the continent, I've seen them in the Aleutians, Midway Atoll, North Dakota, the Dry Tortugas, etc. They really get around. This can likely be explained by their stimulating leg color.

All of these photos were taken just south of the Ventura Harbor, usually a reliable place for the above rockpipers, and Black and American X Black Oystercatchers. If you are coming from out of state and trying to track these species down, this is a good place to start...but you should probably check the rocks first. I swear.


  1. Oh my...very much crushed in deed, like even more Crushed than the delicious orange soda.

    The Tattlers are something special, as are your shots of them. Too cool...

    1. Thanks Laurence. The tattlers were definitely my favorite out of the bunch.

  2. Crushed... and you got to sandcrawl too, what a terrific day!

    1. I didn't even have to crawl...I just sat down! The birds took care of the rest.

  3. Damn. Sick. That Surfbird looking all pigeony is crazy. Mad jealous of the new camera! I love new toys.

    1. I didn't even think of the pigeon comparison. Spot fucking on.

  4. Holy shit. That new camera is fucking amazing.

    1. It's pretty good...but you've been doing some crushing yourself I see.