Shorebird Immersion Course

I told Doug Buri that if he ever offers his shorebird identification workshop again, he should call it a Shorebird Immersion Course. Number one, you're surrounded by shorebirds, up close and personal (like the short-billed dowitcher and pectoral sandpiper above). Number two, you are out in the mud flats and could sink.

Here's my buddy Amber out taking photos of the many shorebirds that we saw. You can see that the ground surrounding her was a tad wet. Doug's motto was that the way to id shorebirds is to get up close, out on the mud flat. The birds would initially fly away and then come back and feed near you--a human shape is not a known predator so they don't worry about us too much. During one of the morning trips, we were walking on the mud flats. As we went along, I felt my feet sink a little with each step. As long as we kept moving, it wasn't a problem. But then the group stopped to watch some birds and I noticed the world getting taller. I looked down and discovered my Keens were engulfed in mud. We stayed and I tried to quietly free myself--it wasn't happening. Doug said, "Well, at this point we can either go forward or go backwards, whatever the group wants to do."

"Maybe we should go back, I'm starting to sink." I said in a calm voice.

Doug laughed and said something to the effect of "How can you tell, you're always low to the ground." Our group was in a line and I was in back, so no one could really see the situation. I tried again to free my shoes and said, "I kind of am sinking." Again, in a calm tone.

One of the group turned around and saw my shoes and said, "Oh!"

"Yeah, seriously," I said. "I'm sinking and can't get out."

It took two people, but we freed my shoes and I continued on, although a little muddy. Fortunately, there were lots of puddles nearby and I was able to rinse of my shoes.

Doug made us work for those birds, whether it be standing on unsteady mud...

Working on id in a coming storm...

Descending loose rocks near a dam...

Or trudging through eight foot high cattails.

But it was worth it! These little least sandpipers were within about five feet of our group. They were too close to digiscope so I just aimed my camera the old school way--point and shoot.

However, I did get some up close shots of the leasts.

This is a semi-palmated plover (above) not to be confused with the semi-palmated sandpiper (below):

And if you're wondering what the heck "palmated" is all about, it's a throw back to when bird id was done with a shot gun. If you hold a dead semi-palmated sandpiper (or plover) in you hand, about six inches from your face, you will see some slight webbing between their toes. Not all shorebirds have this and as a regular birder, it's not something you're going to notice out in the field. The semi-palmated plover is one of the cutest shorebirds out there--kind of like the kid brother of a killdeer.

"I wish he'd quit copying me. Sigh."

I have to say, Doug had some unconventional methods for teaching us id. Here he was doing a slide show on the finer points of sandpiper identification at a local restaurant. The walls were kind of a peachy color and to help keep the colors true, he borrowed a cook's apron to use as a screen.

In our final class he made us identify old decoys. Actually it worked, we used the hints that he gave us and we were able to figure out what species the artist was trying to carve.

Some questions came up in the comments section about the bugs. I have to say that for all but one of the field trips, we didn't have any mosquito problems. My biggest concern was sunburn and heat exhaustion. When I took most of these photos (like the above dowitcher), it was in the upper 90's and high humidity. I was covered from head to toe with my third application of sun block--I could feel my pores staging a large acne protest on my face, and I could feel sweat dripping down my back and my legs. Stinky mud oozed through my Keens enveloping my toes. It was late afternoon and we were watching some of the birds bathe, I risked the spongy mud to dip my feet in the water, hoping for some cool relief only to be greeted with warm bathwater temperatures. But it was awesome and I had a GREAT time. I was in the middle of nowhere, unable to hear any mechanical sounds (no planes, no cars) and just the sounds of calling shorebirds.

But all his torturous techniques worked, I can now identify my own photos with confidence, instead of sending them on to friends to help id:

This is a pectoral sandpiper.

This is a short-billed dowitcher.

Here's another of the oh so cute least sandpiper.

Here we have the diabolical lesser yellowlegs, not to be confused with the even trickier...

greater yellowlegs. Okay, I know some of you out there are saying, "Yo, Shaz, that bird looks EXACTLY like the photo above it! How can it be different?" Well, this bird was 30% larger than the bird in the other photo and if you look close, it's bill is "two toned" it's lighter at the base than the tip. The lesser yellowlegs has an all dark bill. Really, it does. Honest.

All in all, this workshop was a great time, I learned a lot and I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to learn their shorebirds. Part of my block is that there aren't any places where I live that I could watch shorebirds up close several times. I didn't necessarily see several species, but I needed the repetition of the common species in different light to really get them down. Doug has a relaxed teaching style that makes learning fun and helps you feel encouraged. I almost feel like I could take on gulls sometime in the next five years.