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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Shorebirds Returning South

Sorry for the long delay between posts. My Internet service was down for a few days and we also had a house guest for a week. Add my chronic procrastination to the mix and I have had images and videos uploaded for a while, but no text to publish. That said...

It really feels like summer, but fall migration is well underway. Last Friday (August 1st) Doug, Shane and I went over to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to check out the shorebird migration. Water levels on the East Pond had begun to recede (naturally and by the opening of the valve on the north end), creating a narrow ring of shoreline between the water and encircling phragmites.

At this time of year there is a predictable cycle of activity on the refuge's ponds. The shorebirds forage for insects and tiny marine invertebrates on the exposed islands, mudflats and bars in the bay at low-tide. When those areas are flooded at high-tide, many fly over to the East and West Ponds of the refuge to rest along the shoreline or to continue feeding.

The brevity of most shorebird's breeding season is astounding. Many of the various species of shorebirds or waders are long distance migrants. They spend their winters in Central or South American. Come spring, they fly to breeding grounds within the nearctic, thousands of miles away.

Out of curiosity, I began to search through reference guides to locate data on how much time one of these species of shorebirds might spend traveling and how much time they remain on their nesting grounds. Over a dozen species of shorebirds might pass through New York City during a busy migration period, one is the Semipalmated Plover.

Semipalmated Plovers winter as far south as Argentina and, according to "Bull's Birds of New York State", begin to arrive around New York in late-April. After a short respite, they continue north to find a mate and nest somewhere within the south tundra. The females will lay a clutch of from 3 to 4 eggs that hatch in a little under a month. The fairly independent hatchlings fledge about 3 to 4 weeks later. Like the frantic rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, the impatient adult shorebirds rush off on the return trip before their offspring attempt the flight. Early returning Semipalmated Plovers can be observed at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge by mid-July. So, on average, a Semipalmated Plover spends around 6 weeks on their nesting grounds.

I used Google Earth to measure a point along the coast of Argentina within these bird's known winter range, to a point near Hudson Bay within their known breeding grounds. The straight line distance was approximately 7,500 miles. An individual bird making that trek would more likely follow the coast, so the distance would in reality be greater. Conservatively, it could take 2 weeks to get to the tundra and 2 weeks to get back, so that's a month of flying. Using my unscientific estimates, that means a Semipalmated Plover could spend around 10 - 12 weeks just traveling or raising their young. The bad news is that they don't receive any frequent flyer mileage. The good news is that the world population of Semipalmated Plovers doesn't seem to have suffered from this grueling schedule. The better news (for birders, anyway) is that sometimes nearctic breeding shorebirds inadvertently stray from their normal routes. For example, if a Siberia nesting shorebird heading south towards its wintering grounds in Australia veers a little to the right or left, it can end up somewhere along the coast of North America. Such was the case last week at the East Pond of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

On that Friday morning Shane met me up in front of my apartment at 6:15am, we picked up Doug, then the three of us headed off to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. It was just after sunrise and I was really excited as it would be my first day of the 2008 Fall shorebird migration. Both Doug and Shane had already spent a few days birding at the refuge's East Pond and reported increasing numbers of Semipalmated Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper and Long-billed Dowitcher, to name a few. A pair of rare Wilson's Phalarope were also present. There was a cool, steady breeze blowing in from the north, making it feel more like late-September than early-August.

Access to the north end of the East Pond is through a narrow, 100-yard path cut through a dense jungle of common reed. The trail fans out onto a muddy, sulphurous viewing area at the northwest corner of a, roughly, rectangular 1 1/4 mile long pond. Rubber boots are necessary to travel south along the edges as the water level is still relatively high and mud, absolutely deep.

Flocks of chattering, peeping Semipalmated Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, yellow-legs and dowitchers were feeding in shallow water adjacent to the trailhead. One, nearly all white, shorebird turned out to be a Wilson's Phalarope that was found earlier in the week by Doug and Shane. Phalaropes have several interesting feeding techniques, but one sets them apart from pretty much all the other shorebirds. Using their lobbed feet as paddles, they spin around in a circle, like a circus performer, stirring up insect larvae or arthropods then snapping up the food from the surface of the water. It's pretty funny to watch, but I probably shouldn't laugh at them as we likely look similarly amusing to them when we eat spaghetti.

We continued walking south, along the west side of the pond. The water level still reached the reeds in most places. There's a small cove next to a point on the map labeled "Sanderling Point". It not very wide, but needs to be navigated carefully if one wants to bird more than just the northern quarter of the pond. By the end of August it's surface is hardened, dark gray mud etched with deep cracks, but it was August 1st and we had to choose our steps carefully or sink to our waists in muck. South of the cove there were several mixed flocks of shorebirds spread out along a dry stretch between the water and phragmites.

After carefully crossing to the south end of the cove, we set-up our scopes to pick through the birds. Bob Kurtz, a long time New York City birder, was the only other person at the pond. Doug, Bob, Shane and myself spent about 2 hours scanning the large flocks of birds from the west side of the pond before walking back towards the cove. It had been a very good morning for abundance and diversity of birds, especially considering that we never went anywhere else in the refuge. At least I was happy.

Most people who know him, would agree that my friend Shane is an exception birder. He is careful, knowledgeable and always telephones people whenever he finds something special in the field so that they can get to see it. He is going to hate me for posting this on my blog, but he is also the most competitive person I know. Now there is a point for me mentioning this with regard to Friday's birding. As Bob, Doug, Shane and I were walking north, ostensibly to leave the refuge, Shane commented, "I can't believe we didn't find a stint." He sounded seriously disappointed, despite the fact that stints are rarely found at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge or anywhere in the state. They are an Eurasian species of shorebird that has been observed in New York State five times since 1985. Apparently, Shane wanted to see the sixth.

We had stopped briefly, just short of crossing back over the cove. Bob, Shane and I were yapping about something, while Doug scanned the other side of the narrow stretch of water. Suddenly Doug said something like, "Hey guys, there's a really bright red shorebird in front of us." I swear I could hear the wind from Shane's head as he spun around to focus on the bird. It was unlike any sandpiper I had ever seen. Bob said it was a stint. Doug, Shane and I looked in our field guides. Bob repeated that it was a stint, a Red-necked Stint. We couldn't believe our luck and wanted to make absolutely certain of the bird's ID. I think we all knew pretty quickly, as it was in very bright breeding plumage and would be difficult to mistake for anything else. People would be dropping everything to come look for this bird and we didn't want to disappoint (or look like idiots). Doug, Shane and I went back and forth for a few minutes, checking field marks, before turning to Bob, who replied, once more, "It's a Red-necked Stint." Bob was the only one among the four of us who had ever seen one, in fact, he'd seen several.

The bird eventually flew across to the east side of the pond where it fed along a stretch of shoreline just north of a small island. Several phone calls later, the word was out and people were already in their cars heading towards the refuge. Over the next two days a couple of hundred people would make the trek to the East Pond of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to see the brightly colored sandpiper from Siberia.

Video by Doug Gochfeld

Saturday was pretty much a lost day for me. My wife's 15 year old nephew was flying in from North Carolina to spend a week with us. The flight kept getting delayed, it finally landed but they didn't have a gate, you know the routine, but I shouldn't complain because at least I wasn't the one stuck on the airplane.

On Sunday morning I received a phone call from Doug. He was back out at the refuge on the East Pond. In his usual, high-speed, mumbled style I heard the words "sandpiper" and "sharp-tailed". He slowed down enough for me to understand that the Red-necked Stint was still at the refuge, but there was now also a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper present. This shorebird species has only been seen at the refuge once. Apparently, the stint wasn't the only bird in Siberia that was directionally challenged. I told my nephew, Brandon, that after breakfast we would be taking the subway out to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. I also warned him to prepare for a total birding "geekfest". It was the weekend, the weather was beautiful and there was, not only an abundance of common shorebirds, but two extreme rarities on the East Pond.

Brandon is not into birdwatching, but I figured what 15 year old boy wouldn't mind spending the morning slogging around in the mud. During breakfast I had three field guides spread out on the kitchen table. I gave him the short lesson on shorebird migration and vagrants before we headed out towards the subway station.

I don't always chase rare birds, in fact, during my 2006 "Big Year", I think I probably burned out on that aspect of birding. This was different, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was that the season had just begun and I was still excited about the flood of arriving migrants. When Brandon and I walked onto the East Pond there were already about 50 birders present. As we hustled south towards the group still watching the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, I did something that I'm ashamed to admit.

Several yards into the walk, I noticed the Wilson's Phalarope spinning in the shallow water. I pointed and said, "There's the phalarope" and kept walking. Just short of the curve in the shoreline near the cove, I stopped to scan the opposite shore for the stint. I got it in my scope almost immediately, looked at it for about 10 seconds said, "stint is on the other side", picked up my tripod and continued walking. I nearly lost Brandon in the quicksand-like mud around the cove, but we arrived at a group of about 15 people looking across the water at the sandpiper. As I was looking at the uniquely marked bird I thought, "I can't believe that I just did that." Have I become an MTV generation birder where even the "special" birds become yesterday's news overnight?

Shane and Doug were already at the East Pond, enjoying well-lit, but distant views of the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. The bird remained on the east side of the pond, while all but one birder stayed on the west. We drove back to Brooklyn with them, saving us a long subway ride. Before leaving, Doug and I arranged to meet the next morning, before sunrise, so that we could get to the refuge before the "crowds" and take some photographs of the sandpiper. We planned to walk up the east side from the "South Flats" and, hopefully, not get stuck in any muck.

The weather cooperated and we were able to make our way up to the small spit where the sandpiper had been observed. It was 7:45am when the bird stepped out of the shadows and on to the shoreline directly in front of us. Eventually, several birders arrived on the opposite shore and set-up their scopes. Doug called Lloyd, who was with the group, to direct them to the bird's location.

Unfortunately, before we left, a Peregrine Falcon began swooping low over the pond. Thousands of panicked shorebirds zipped back and forth across the long, narrow pond. The falcon disappeared, but returned a few minutes later, this time he actually dipped into the water briefly before heading north. Doug and I never saw the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper again. The Red-necked Stint was reported later in the day, but by the next morning both birds and many of the other shorebirds had moved out on the overnight cold front. Maybe when the next cold front pushes through, the "Siberian Express" will be transporting another interesting passenger or two on board. With a little luck, my friend Shane will find himself another stint.
by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"


Doug said...

One minor inaccuracy in that I believe Shane's exact words were: "I'm tired of coming out here and never finding a f***ing Stint!"

And by Sunday the theme of Rare birds being ignored had evolved from "Phalarope Shmalarope" (Friday) to "Stint Shmint" (Sunday+).

Pamela said...

as a relatively new "bird-watcher" in an old body, I find your stories completely mesmerizing. I would give my eye teeth to have been there with you.
(ps. I have no idea what an eye-tooth is, but I'm sure I wouldn't miss it.)

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