Today was hardcore! Yes sir, this was some mighty fine birdin' in some sloshy areas. We drudged through wetland vegetation to get as close as possible to some shorebirds--and they didn't care! Okay, some cared a little but for the most part they just probed away at the mud, oblivious to our presence. That's our fearless leader Doug Buri above. I don't know if you can see it in the above photo, but here are some dark specks in the sky--those are swallows, thousands and thousands of swallows (of several different species) swarming over our heads. Doug said that the winds pushed insects from the lake to one end and the birds were above catching them. That's really cool and all, but I did wonder...how may insects are just overhead to cause the skies to cloud with swallows? Eep!
The least sandpipers didn't care about us in the least (har har--sorry, I couldn't resist). A minor problem that I had was that they were so oblivious to us that they would turn their backs to us and ignore the six large creatures and I had to wait to get a head on photo.
Doug has really planned this workshop well. He brought up a common problem that I can relate to. When you go out to watch shorebirds, you will go someplace where there are hundreds, if not thousands (the more there are the easier, right?) and it can be tough to learn id that way--too many species to focus on, too overwhelming. The birds constantly move and it's like watching a pot of boiling vegetable soup--it's hard to focus on just one vegetable. He chose areas for today where there would be 3-4 species for us to really focus and learn--species that I have trouble with like pectoral sandpipers, semi-palmated sandpipers, killdeer (okay, I don't have problems with killdeer--I'm not that bad), and least sandpiper (three of those four species are in the above photo). I really, really needed this because goodness knows I have misidentified quite a few shorebirds in this blog. Doug is also using The Shorebird Guide as our text for the workshop--a book that I love. Not only is it full of useful info, but the photos are just gorgeous--really works of art. It's a great book buy it--it won't teach you shorebirds over night, but it will help.
Killdeer are really helpful in the field, they are everywhere, you see them all the time anyway, so you have an idea of their size and they make great comparisons--how big is the bird in relation to a killdeer? Check out the bird behind the killdeer--we probably would have figured this one out without the aid of the killdeer. You notice the neon yellow legs and you may think, could this be a yellow legs? No, way too buffy...
Here we have a couple of birds, the larger is a pectoral sandpiper and you'll note the gray mottling goes halfway down over its chest and makes an abrupt stop. Next to it is a smaller bird. Ack! What could it be? Doug asked me, "If you have to choose a color for this bird, brown or gray, what would you answer?" I answered gray. Then he asked, "Does the bill look like it's the same color as the legs or do the legs look like a different color?" I said that they looked the same. He said, "Semi-palmated sandpiper."
That's all well and good, but the hard part is how do I tell the semi palm from the least--they're almost the same size. Even though the least is a half inch smaller than the semi palm, that can be a hard difference to see in the field.
We looked at this bird and again, Doug asked, "If you have to choose a color for this bird, brown or gray, what would you answer?" I answered brown. "Does the bill look like it's the same color as the legs or do the legs look like a different color?" I said that the legs and bill did not look like it was the same color. That makes this a least.
These are just some of the great tips we are learning from Doug, we're also learning lots of other id clues. He also had us look at a shore line in the distance without binoculars. You could easily see the whites of the semi-palmateds. In some cases, you could see that the birds were quite gray with the naked eye. When you put up your binos, you could see the browner least sandpipers which weren't so visible to the naked eye. In the scope, you can also notice that the bill on the semi-palmated sandpiper is more blunt tipped at the end and the least comes to a finer point.
I have to say there are a TON of frogs and toads here. At our first stop this morning we were totally surrounded. Every time someone took a step, twelve frogs would jump in different directions--sometimes ricocheting off of our legs. I guess lots of frogs are a good sign of healthy water.
There were also quite a few toads. I don't think this is an American toad and am wondering if this is a great plains toad. I sent a photo to Stan, but haven't heard from him yet. Anyone out there familiar with these guys? It was kind of spikey and made me think of Delmar in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou when he says, "She loved 'im up and turned him into a h-h-hooorny toad."
And now I must rest up so I can soak up more shorebirding knowledge tomorrow. It's a great day when all you do is learn new things all day long. I'm still glad that there are birds I don't know and I can have the "ah-ha" moment and finally understand the difference between hard to id birds.