Shorebird Migration

Migration is in full swing!

Ah, it's the special time of year when I drive around looking for flooded farm fields and get the opportunity to misidentify shorebirds.  We've had several flooded fields thanks to some heavy rain storms in Minnesota this summer.  My neighborhood flooded again two weeks ago.  In general, I like shorebirds--they are cute, have crazy shaped beaks and run around comically as they probe mud or sand for food.  But they do have a tendency to defy the field guides or at least my understanding of them.  If your travels over the next few weeks take you to some shallow waters in a flood farm field or around some sod farms, take a closer look.  Even if the field looks deserted of birds with the naked eye, give it a quick scan with binoculars, you might be surprised at what you find.

Some of these birds, like least sandpipers are the size of sparrows and easy to miss.  But the sure are adorable to watch as they probe for food.

Here's an example of my misidentification misadventures:  I tried to make the four birds above from left to right a solitary sandpiper, a lesser yellowlegs, least sandpiper and least sandpiper.  Turns out that both the 2 larger birds are solitary sandpipers and different plumages.  There go birds again--not living up to the field guide name.  Shorebird id is so much like a logic problem.

I get excited when I do find easily recognizable shorebirds like the above Wilson's snipe.  I saw several working a farm field southwest of the Twin Cities.  Not only do I enjoy these birds for their identify-ability, but they look so strange, with the super long bill.  What kind of squishy bugs and crustaceans can a bill like that detect.  According to All About Birds, snipe have sensory pits at the tip of the bill which allows them to feel its prey deep in the mud.  I often wonder what it's like to experience the world as a bird when it can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, but how about detecting things with your mouth--crazy!

The field had several shorebirds, mostly pectoral sandpipers, but as I scanned, I found several snipe lurking in the vegetation.  They look similar to woodcocks but an easy way to tell them apart is the striping over the head. The above poor guy kept trying to take a snooze but was constantly interrupted by foraging shorebirds or more snipe calling as they landed in the same field.

I do have mixed feelings about the shorebird migration this year and feel an especially hard pull to go out and really watch birds and enjoy them.  I love seeing them and I wonder if their numbers will plummet.  I wonder how many are off to the Gulf and how many we will lose on the way down and on the way back up.  Has their fuel supply been altered in some way we can't detect yet?  Will they find food, but will it be contaminated and force many birds to die in the Gulf waters rather than flying over the whole body of water? Migration is tricky business and I always wonder who will be strong enough to survive and return next year, but the oil contamination in the surrounding Gulf marshes could kill more birds.

There's a really, really good article at One Earth that even has some quotes by bird people who know far more than I do like Laura Erickson and Scott Weidendsaul.  It's a good read and highlights many points anyone involved with birds has about the Gulf Spill not being over.  I know BP and surprisingly some government officials want us to believe that it's over, but it is not.  Just because the oil is below the surface and "out of sight" does not mean it is gone.

Shorebird Banding At The Midwest Birding Symposium

1 Alvaro Jaramillo A birder scans the dawn for migrants.  What a beautiful morning at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio!  During the Midwest Birding Symposium, I got the opportunity to observe some shorebird banding last Friday (which was a fun change of pace from the usual songbird banding I do on Fridays).  The banding started at dawn and involved two men named Tom.


The nets were set in areas where the shorebirds were feeding. The banders had to be careful to too keep the bottoms of the nets high, so if too many birds were caught, the nets wouldn't droop down into the water. You had to wear some serious waders in order to put the nets up and to retrieve the birds.


Some birds were not buying it, like the above pectoral sandpiper (that's a yellowlegs blurred in the background). Some birds fed right under the nets, while others flew right above and below.  However, many flew into the nets and we got to see quite a large variety of shorebird species in the hand.

o solo mio

Some of the nets were not easy to get to. Shorebird feed on mudflats and that gets messy.  They had to cross a stream to be able to get at the nets in a fast and easy manner.

pectoral sand

Look at this beauty--a pectoral sandpiper.  This is one I can remember, note how far the brown goes down on its body before it meets the white.  The brown goes down much further on this bird than it would on a semipalmated or least--plus it's bigger.  The birds were all smaller in hand than they look in the field, which is what I expected.  According to bird banding guru Peter Pyle, this bird takes a band size of 1A.  You can put a 1A band on a cardinal to give you an idea of size.

pectoral weight

The banders took the usual measurement of wings and tail, but also checked weight. This was done swiftly, by quickly inserting the shorebird into a tube and setting it on a scale (the weight of the tube was already calculated on the scale.  I think the banders had all of their measurements taken, banding and then assessment of age and sex in less than 60 seconds. They were quick, with the shorebird's safety and health a primary concern.

semi palm plover

Here's a cute little bird! It's the sample size version of the killdeer, a semipalmated plover.  Don't you just love that yellow eyering?  These also take a small 1A band like the pectoral (and cardinal).  After this bird was banded, it flew across the nearby creek and began to forage as though nothing had happened.


And if you are wondering what the name "semipalmated" is all about, it refers to the slight webbing between the toes.  See?  Again, a bird named back in the day when they were shot first and identified later.  It's something seen easily in hand and up close to the face, but rarely seen when the bird is running around on a mudflat.  And believe it or not, non birders, this is not the only semipalmated bird out there.

semi palm sand

We also got a semipalmated sandpiper into the nets too.  Above you can see Tom splaying the toes revealing the partial webbing between the toes.  This bird had a slight deformity on its bill, there was a lump in the middle.  Had it flown into a window at some point? Was it just some sort of odd defect it was hatched with? Who can say?

same different-2

If you remember the photo from the previous entry, I asked if these were the same birds or different.  Even in hand, up close it can be a challenge.  Normally, I would point out the bill differences, but the semipalmated has that notch in its beak.  Another way I tell the two apart in Minnesota is also covered up.  Semipalm's bill and feet appear to be the same color, least sandpipers feet look lighter in color than the bill (you'll have to take my word on that since the least's feet are covered up in that photo).  You can see some examples here.

banding snipe

The coolest bird of the day for me was a Wilson's snipe that came into the nets.  What a great bird and what a treat to see up close.  Above is bander Tom Bartlett, reminding me a bit of Hannibal of the A-Team, loving it when a shorebird plan comes together.  And for the record, all we had to do to get this snipe was put up banding nets in the morning, no one was out in the middle of the night with a pillowcase making strange noises.

snipe toes

Here are some snipe toes, remarkably clean for a bird that wanders in mud.

wilsons snipe

Here's a shot of the head and that incredibly long beak it uses to probe in mud.  The bill  of the snipe is so flexible that it can open just the tips without opening the whole bill! Sensory pits at the tip of the bill allow the snipe to feel its prey deep in the mud.  It's bill is also handy for yanking the occasional worm too.

snipe ridges

Tom tried to gently reveal the serrations inside the bill.  There are a couple of different theories as to how the snipe gets food and perhaps it uses both.  Some think that they may suck up food when the bill is probed in soil and others think the serrations pointing back towards its mouth in conjunction with its tongue will help move prey found in mud.  Still something we can learn.


Tom does have to bee quick when getting birds out of the nets.  He showed us this photo from just last month when a young peregrine falcon saw shorebirds struggling in the nets and thought it might be easy prey.  Tom got a little messy, but was able to get the falcon before it got the shorebirds.

This was a fun and educational experience and hands down one of my favorite birding moments at the Midwest Birding Symposium.

Alvaro Jaramillo Counting Snipe Retrices

guess the tail Thanks for all the guesses in the blog and on Twitter.  DC Birding Blog guessed correctly when he wrote Wilson's snipe.  I love that tail, it looks like a mini red-tailed hawk tail. Tai brings up a good point, note how small the feathers are in relation to the fingers--they are small birds.

Here is a video of Alvaro Jaramillo counting the snipe's tail feathers (you'll hear me call it a common snipe, I'm still stuck on it's old name, it is a Wilson's snipe).  You may remember Alvaro from a video earlier this year on learning to love gull watching.  Funny guy and would keep you laughing on one of his tours with Field Guides:


In the background you might notice Mike Bergin taking photos off to the left, and the dude with the budding fro is Hugo who was one of my guides in Guatemala.

Birding the Minnesota & South Dakota Border

Don't worry, this post isn't all shorebirds.

On a Friday I was watching these little semi-palmated plovers squabbling on a beach and then the very next day, I'm watching them on a mud flat in western Minnesota...

And getting prickly pear cactus paddles stuck on my leg--owie. Yes, we do have a couple of cactus species growing in Minnesota, you can see them at Big Stone NWR. I went with Stan Tekiela and a group from Staring Lake Outdoor Center in Eden Prairie. These are fun, low key trips where we see some great birds...

...and local color like the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota (if you're wondering if this is the famed ball from Weird Al Yankovic song, it is).

We also stopped at the headwaters of the Minnesota River. Which was chock full of American white pelicans.

They were fishing right at the dam--I think I have a video of it, I'll see if I can dig it out of the external drive and load it later today. These were some urban birds. They did not care about us coming too close at all.

Usually white pelicans around the state are a bit cautious of humans, but these dudes just didn't care.

The fishing must be that good...and hopefully not too polluted right at the headwaters, unlike some of the other parts.

I got a kick out of seeing a band on one of the pelicans, perhaps this is a bird that I banded? If I didn't do it, I'm sure it's part of that same colony, it's very close to the Minnesota Headwaters.

We were hoping to find some shorebirds while we were out here, since Amber and I went on the shorebird workshop and had a great time last year. The weather had not been as cooperative this year. There was a big storm a few days before we arrived and all the prime mud flats were now ponds--not the best stopover for migrating shorebirds. We did find some like the least sandpiper above. The storm damage was incredible. The locals said there were 80 mile an hour winds and it showed in shredded corn fields, barns missing chunks of roof, and LOTS of trees down.

We went to Salt Lake right on the Minnesota/South Dakota border and found more shorebirds there like the Wilson's phalaropes (and lone pectoral sandpiper) in the above photo. It had the best and most accessible variety of shorebirds on the trip including short-billed dowitcher and stilt sandpipers.

This group wasn't all about shorebirds either, and we found black terns and a single Forster's tern (above).

The big stars of the show for the group was the massive amount of swallows around Salt Lake. I tried to get a video of this, but it's so windy and shaky that I think people would get motion sickness if I put it up on YouTube. But see this little section of swallows, it went on for as far as you could see the fence line. There were literally hundreds of swallows of various species. We found bank, barn, tree, cliff, and northern rough-winged swallow all hanging out and staging on the fence.

There was also a family group of savannah sparrows on the fence too. They appeared to have one fledgling with them--go native sparrows! Squeeze in one more brood before you migrate south!

We were seeing quite a few flickers as well and there was a family group with some fledgling flickers too. Young flickers begging always throw me. Yesterday, I was biking a different trail and I heard some begging at first I thought it was a raptor begging, until I saw the young flickers. I have to say, if you are in the Twin Cities and like to bird and bike--the Cedar Lake Trail is GREAT right now. I can't believe the diversity of species right on the edge of downtown. I found a fledging red-shouldered hawk, an adult Cooper's hawk, a pileated woodpecker, red-eyed vireo, indigo bunting and I got dove at by a male bluebird guarding his nest box--it wasn't my fault, someone put the bluebird box right next to the bike trail. It was also encouraging to see another species going for the gold with a late nesting.

Now, I just need to find a way to attach my spotting scope to my bike handle bars so I can digiscope--then I'll be unstoppable!

My Amazing Birding Morning At South Beach In Cape Cod

So, Swarovski took all us bloggers out to the remote South Beach section of Cape Cod for some birding and digiscoping.

The morning started foggy and chilly but warmed to a sunny day--a few times, it looked more like we were in a desert rather than the cape.

We saw some horseshoe crabs. They do look like some strange aquatic tank as they truck around.

Here we have the great blogger and science chimp Julie Zickefoose examining a horseshoe crab that young Dakota found--Dakota came along on the trip with Bird Freak and started his own blog this summer: Dakota's All Natural Experience--It’s like the “Jeff Corwin Experience”…Only Smaller. For Julie's wisdom on horseshoe crabs, check out her blog entry here.

And a mini Jeff Corwin he is! Dakota had a knack for finding horseshoe crabs of all sizes. For those curious, above is the underbelly of those funky lookin' crabs. These are also the horseshoe crabs that are central to the red knot debate.

I love birding along coasts on warm days. There's something about watching a bunch of crazy looking birds (like the willet and dowitchers in the above photo). Willets always throw me. I first saw them on the east coast, so I associated them with beaches, but we can see them in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. They always throw me when I see them in the prairie.

We did see an interesting short-billed dowitcher--that's typical coloration of a dowitcher on the left and an unusually light dowitcher on the right.

My buddy Clay zeroed in on the very light colored dowitcher above right away and I followed to digiscope it. At first we weren't sure if it was really light from wear on its feathers or if it's a leucistic bird. I sent the photo to Doug Buri who knows shorebirds better than I do and he seems to think it's a leucistic bird.

While focusing on the shorebirds, the tide quickly swept in. I was digivideoing these shorebirds (notice the different feeding techniques. The largest bird is a Hudsonian godwit and it's surrounded by short-billed dowitchers--note how both species use their incredibly long bill to probe deeply into the sand. You'll also see a colorful ruddy turnstone that has a smaller bill--note how it seems to skim the surface of the sand). Anyway, while filming, I felt a rush of water and the tide had come in. I turned around and many of the other bloggers were overcome with the tide.

Another interesting bird was this herring gull with a beak full of clam. This bird kept flying up in the air, dropping the clam, and then following it to the ground. It was trying to drop the clam to crack it open to have access to the gooey goodness inside. Alas, this is not the brightest gull on the string. Other gulls had figured out that parking lots accomplished this task quickly. This bird seemed intent on dropping the clam over the sand. I watched it drop the clam from high in the air and by the sixth attempt I had lost interest. Not sure how long the gull kept this up or if ever got at the desired insides.

I was trying to get a shot of the semi-palmated plover (the bird on the right) when I noticed the tired sandpiper behind it--the bird is so tired, it can't even tuck its bill into shoulder. I'm not sure of the species, if I had to guess based on size, I would say least sandpiper, but whatever it is, its too cute dozing on the beach.

More later.

Loves Me Some Ruddy Turnstones

When Swarovski took us birding out South Beach in Cape Cod, I made a beeline for ruddy turnstones. LOVE those guys. They're shorebirds which give them a kind of Dr. Seuss look and they are so flashy looking. Attention must be paid to a turn stone. They are opportunistic and feed on rocky and sandy beaches during winter and on migration, by turning over rocks and pebbles (oh hey, a bird living up to it's name--shocked, I'm shocked I tells ya'). They'll also turn over seaweed, shells, and even garbage. Traditionally, I think they ate invertebrates and tiny fish, but I've seen them around carrion and once watched my father-in-law feed them oyster crackers. I just read on BNA that they will also go for other birds, I wonder if people will dispise them as much as blue jays now?

There were some people digging up clams while we were birding along the beach. When they would leave, turnstones would run over and see if they could find any left overs. Click here (click on the Watch In High Quality link) and you can watch a digivideo of the above ruddy turnstone feeding on clam bits in a shell (keep the volume low, the wind is kind of loud).

And they fight! This is part of the brawl that's in the video I posted earlier (click on the Watch In High Quality link). Now, BNA reads, "Less aggressive during nonbreeding season, though extremely territorial when feeding in flocks." What are they like in breeding mode when they are more aggressive??

I think we can see who had the upper beak in this shot. Check out the dude on the right--completely on its side-belly facing the camera. With that sassy plumage, they could qualify for the WWE.