Check out City Birder Tours, and Green-Wood sponsored tours on their calendar pages here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tom Davis Shorebird Walk

I began this piece the day before my accident, so forgive me if it seems a few weeks late.

There was a period of time when ornithologists and birdwatchers believed that the only way to properly identify some shorebirds was to shoot them. Once in the hand, close inspection of the feathers, bill and other field marks could be correctly measured and analyzed. Much has changed over the last 50 years. Teacher, artist and naturalist Roger Tory Peterson lead the way with his systematic approach to identifying birds in the field. Other biologists and artists soon followed Peterson. Thankfully, now binoculars and spotting scopes have replaced the shotgun. For myself and many birderwatchers, though, identifying some shorebirds remain a challenge. While there is no substitute for spending time in the field observing shorebirds, a good teacher is, in my opinion, key. Regarding shorebird identification, Jack Connor, author of "The Complete Birder", wrote:

"Warblers and hawks can be exasperating; shorebirds can be ego crushing.

Warblers and hawks generally escape us by dropping into the bushes or flying over the horizon, so there's always bad luck to blame: "At first I couldn't see it, then it disappeared." Too often in shorebirding, the unident stands right there, thirty yards away, waiting patiently while we first flip through our field guide, then backward more slowly, checking all the plumages, then forward again, this time being sure to check the pages with the Eurasian vagrants, and it's still standing there when at last - meekly and painfully, hoping no one is watching - we close down the scope and walk on."

Last year I posted a couple of short pieces about a celebrated New York City birder named Tom Davis. You can read them here and here. I never met Tom as he passed away long before I began birding, but Peter Post kindly sent me two photos from back in the '60s or '70s. I had heard that Tom was tall, but after seeing the photos, I think "towering" would be a better description.

I mention Tom Davis for two reasons. First, it is my understanding that Tom was not only a skilled, passionate birder, but also a great teacher. Shorebirds were his specialty and he went to great lengths to find, identify and share with others his discoveries, understanding and love of these long distant migrants. His name is attributed with many of the state's records of rare shorebird sightings. For many of New York's long time birders, it is difficult to discuss "Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge" and "shorebirds" without recalling a Tom Davis anecdote. I'd like to learn more about Tom and help keep his legend alive. As with last year's posting, perhaps readers who knew him could add a brief mention in the comments section.

Birding, as a recreational activity, has a tradition of passing on knowledge to the next generation of birders. From my perspective, birding is not just about finding birds, it's also about sharing. Sharing my enjoyment of nature discovery was my motivation for creating this blog. In the spirit of Tom Davis' love of shorebirds, for the last 15 years the Linnaean Society of New York has hosted an "Annual Tom Davis Shorebird Walk" at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. This year the walk was on August 23rd. For the 5th consecutive year, my good friend Sean Sime was the trip leader. Tom Davis is a tough act to follow (especially at 6' 8" tall), but Sean's detailed knowledge of shorebirds, relaxed demeanor, excellent teaching skills and sense of humor always make for a good trip.

In the weeks prior to the walk, circumstances that only the birds would know (and they're not talking) lead to an unusual appearance of rare birds at the refuge. I suspect that most people who attended the walk had high hopes that there would still be some of these rarities present. I knew that it had been a while since the Red-necked Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Wilson's Phalarope were reported at Jamaica Bay, but would be just as happy to spend my time studying the more common "peeps." I welcome any opportunity to learn more about identification from Sean, whether the shorebirds are rare or common.

Our group met at the visitor's center a couple of hours prior to high-tide. Sean's strategy was to have enough time to bird the West Pond area, then walk to the East Pond at the peak of the tide cycle.

There weren't any unusual birds observed that day, but it did allow us to spend time learning more about the "peeps" conundrum - Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper (and, if they were present, Western Sandpiper and Baird's Sandpiper). The "best" shorebird of the day was a trio of Stilt Sandpipers seen on the East Pond.

For me, one of the more enjoyable aspects of watching birds, is observing their behavior and we had an interesting experience that day. As our group was exiting the South Flats section of the East Pond we spotted something fascinating. Several groups of migrating swallows had been seen flycatching over both the West and East Ponds. They were primarily Tree Swallows, but there were also a small number of Bank Swallows present. At the south end of the East Pond I pointed out a Bank Swallow to some of the birders who had missed it earlier. As we were watching the bird, it dipped down towards the surface of the pond and picked up a white feather floating on the water. The bird carried the feather several yards into the air, then released it. As the feather fluttered towards the pond, the acrobatic swallow swooped down and caught it. It repeated this apparent game of catch several times as our group looked on in amazement.

We discussed the possible motivation for its behavior. Some people thought that it might be a young bird who was practicing his or her insect hunting mastery. It sounds plausible. Perhaps play IS sometimes an activity that hones an animal's survival skills, but just as humans enjoy playing, could it also be that sometimes play is simply just fun even for birds?
Location: Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
Observation date: 8/23/08
Notes: 15th Annual Tom Davis Memorial Shorebird Walk
Number of species: 57

Blue-winged Teal
Green-winged Teal
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
Broad-winged Hawk
Peregrine Falcon
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
American Oystercatcher
Spotted Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Ruddy Turnstone
Red Knot
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher
Laughing Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Chimney Swift
Fish Crow
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Wren
Gray Catbird
Red-winged Blackbird
Boat-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, American Crow, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, House Finch, House Sparrow

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"


georges said...

What fun to see these pictures of Tom Davis and others. By others, i mean myself (on the right in the group shot,) and Tom with my mother. (Thanks Peter, for the great shots!)

Tom Davis definitely had a sense of humor. As a young teenager, Tom usually called me Georgette, since it rhymes (somewhat) with my name Georges. He thought that was hilarious.

In 1981, i was birding in southern Arizona, where i saw a white-tailed kite, which does not occur there. I reported it, but my report was not accepted, mainly because no one knew who i was. This kind of hurt, and i was whining to Tom about it. His response was some of the best advice i'd ever received in the field of birding. He said, "When these things happen, cover your ears, close your eyes, shake your head, and say 'it's only a game, it's only a game, it's only a game.'" How right he was! From that day on, i never cared again whether my accidentals were "accepted" of not; i saw it, and that's all that matters.

The last time i saw Tom was in 1982, just before my military deployment to Korea. Now Tom hated ducks (he often wore a t-shirt that said "ducks suck",) but he loved shorebirds. He warned me that if i ever see a spoon-billed sandpiper, my health might be in danger if i return to the US. I did in fact see one, but never got the chance to throw it in his face. Between deployments and military life, i was not able to see him again. But that spoon-billed sandpiper is permanently linked to my old friend, Tom Davis.


Yojimbot said...

I like to shoot bird...with my camera.

"Canon, lets you capture Nature, and leave it as you found it."


georges said...

I found a picture of Johnny Lawrenson and Tom Davis with his "Ducks Suck" t-shirt, that I mentioned. I'll send it to you if you tell me how.

georges kleinbaum

Rob Jett said...

Georges - I'd love to see that photo of Tom in his "Duck" shirt. You can email mail it to:

citybirdertours [AT]

(Just replace the [AT] with the expected character.)

Exploring urban nature, birds, birdwatching, birding, hummingbirds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, hawks, raptors, wildflowers, trees, mushrooms, environment, binoculars, spotting scope