Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Plovers, Peeps, Goose-like Wingbeats

This adult Black-bellied Plover still has some appeal, but lacks in crispness/crispiness. In August, adult southbound shorebirds still wear the ragged remains of their once-impressive plumage they sported on the tundra or taiga. Sometimes it can present an ID challenge (i.e., with adult golden-plovers), at other times it is a simple statement...migration is on, the birds are back, and you need to be out looking for that rare shit. Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary, Alameda, CA.

It's September now, and I've been cruising. Unlike last year, when hoped-for rarities did not seem to start materializing until the very end of the month, things have been going swimmingly so far. Vague runts seem relatively plentiful, and disappointments have been few.

But as I said, there is much to catch up with. Before September, there was August. Here in the bay area, the birding has just gotten better and better...June is boring, July is better (shorebirds return), and August brings pelagic trips and plentiful shorebirds, not to mention a whole lot of suspense around the big question seasoned California birders ask each other (in trembling voices) every year...what will September bring? In other words, August birding is exciting again, and I thought I would pay respects to some of the birds of shore (not just shorebirds) prominently featured during the month.

Oh, and before we get in too deep, think of a bird (not a goose) with goose-like wingbeats. Got it? Now put it in your pocket and we will take it out for another look at the end of the post.

Snowy Plovers are patchily distributed around the bay area, favoring salt ponds and a few select beaches along the coast. This adult was washing off the salt at Frank's Dump in Hayward, CA.

Despite being adorable and intensely, Snowy Plovers are very territorial and often chase each other off or do battle if it is called for. The faded bird snuck up on the unsuspecting bather and chased it off. There were still a couple of broods of tiny, downy chicks out here this day (which seemed a bit odd...it was late August), so the aggression was not a surprise.

The Global Birder Ranking System (GBRS) lists me as the #7 U.S. birder, based on hundreds of factors. One of those factors is my ability to pass on knowledge, to not just hoard what I have learned. In that spirit, I want to let you you in on a secret...Semipalmated Plovers have white outer retrices. Did you know that? Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, Oakland, CA.

I may be #7, but I am just like you in a lot of ways...I have fears. Not of slipping to #8 or anything absurd like that, but genuine concerns that I dwell on, that keep me up at night. For example, I have seen many thousands of Semipalmated Plovers...could one of those have been a Common Ringed Plover? Talk about a bird that would be easy to overlook...at any rate, this is a standard Semipalmated.

In August, the mudflats at this park were inundated by Least Terns, mostly from the nearby Alameda colony (I assume) but possibly from elsewhere in the bay. I counted 190 individuals one day at the beginning of August, which to me is a staggering number to see away from a breeding colony. There were a lot of juveniles around (which is good news, as Least Terns are federally listed in the state) and a lot of strange looking molting birds, like this one. Almost no tail on this bird...why????

This fresh juvenile was not confusing, only encouraging. It was good to see Least Terns in something other than alternate plumage, because they get the hell out of dodge almost as soon as breeding is complete so it's not often we get to see much variation in these birds, beyond full alternate. I'm sure I've already seen my last Least Terns of the year already...it's been real.

A great many Western Sandpipers use San Francisco Bay during migration, which I am very grateful for. Here is a typical juvenile male, showing rusty scapulars and a relatively short bill. I've spent an inordinate amount of time this fall sorting through Westerns, looking for a Semipalmated, as it would be a year bird and I've never been able to find one in the bay area...how embarrassing. The search has been in vein, but the search for other vague runts continues.

Now that I think about it, I've spent a not insignificant part of my life sorting through Western Sandpipers. I'm ok with that. It's more enjoyable than sorting through Least Sandpipers.

Ah, the homely Least Sandpiper. They don't get a lot of love. If someone asked you, "What would you rather, have American Redstarts go extinct or have Least Sandpipers go extinct", you know you would pick the sandpiper over the vast majority of other birds. It's not their fault they are so drab and abundant, and they certainly aren't obnoxious or anything. They're just being Least Sandpipers. I liked the cracked mud this one was coursing over. 

Now that I've lulled you to sleep with common birds, how about something else...do you see a godwit (the startling pale one...on the left) that is not like the others? Bolinas Lagoon, Bolinas, CA.

Bolinas Lagoon hosted this Bar-tailed Godwit for about a week, which we were able to see from Highway 1. I've only seen one in the state before, so when Peter Pyle reported this bird, the drool started flowing in earnest. Though it never came particularly close, the bird readily stood out from the Marbleds, even at great distance. Seeing a Sibe always feels like a major accomplishment, and this bird brought the warm and fuzzy rarity endorphins I knew it would. Also present were a Ruddy Turnstone (oddly, somewhat of a rarity in Marin) and a fantastically distant golden-plover, which Peter and others had previously identified as an American.

A lone Long-billed Curlew provided the godwitting birders close company on the shore of the lagoon. Sibley notes "goose-like wingbeats" and "foraging movements graceful"; neither of these thoughts have ever occurred to me, though I won't go on record as denying them.

Perhaps he will note "forceful bellowing" in the next edition.