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A Bird’s Eye View: August 13, 2010

Getting to Know Shorebirds

Shorebirds, especially small ones, are difficult to distinguish from one another. I first became familiar with a few shorebirds, large and small, in their brilliant summer plumages on Cape Cod beaches in the 1990s. Last winter on a Longboat Key, Florida beach I slowly came to recognize a number of shorebirds in their dull winter plumages and observed things about them, which I hadn’t before. These accidental discoveries gave me a fuller picture of each bird’s behavior and a greater appreciation of them.

A group of 35 to 40 red knots are feeding on a raised wet sand mound that resembles a whale’s back beginning to rise from the water. Plump sandpipers, their breasts appear covered with small pale dots. In late February those breasts appear to be getting darker, a sign that the knots are morphing into their rust colored breeding plumage. One bird has both a green and a yellow tag on its legs, showing that it was banded twice. Because they plunge their pencil-thin black bills into the wet sand, which come up glistening, I’ve begun calling them “pencil pushers.” These birds take hard-shelled tiny creatures from the sand, which are crushed in their sinewy stomachs.

Suddenly they all fly out toward the waves and circle back to the beach, landing some 15 yards away. Now the group has grown to 50. The feeding must be good. A huge pebbly cloud hides the sun, making the already cool morning more so. There’s something about standing here alone in the chilly breeze watching these birds relentlessly feed on this exposed mound of soaked sand which I find hard to explain. For me it’s what birding’s about.

Another morning there are a few ruddy turnstones, eye-catching sandpipers that sometimes feed with the red knots at the water’s edge. They have red legs; a red/rust back and a striking almost black oxbow–like pattern on their white breasts. Beachcombers, they turn over shells, weeds, leaves and virtually anything with their black slightly up-turned bills, searching for practically anything to eat. This morning the beach is covered with large beds of small broken shells. The little turnstones’ fleet red feet go over them with no apparent pain. They’re tougher than I’d realized.

Sanderlings are slightly smaller than the red knots and turnstones. They scurry away with surprising speed. With medium brown backs and white breasts and bellies, their clearest field mark is a small curved black line at the shoulder.

One morning eight of them, a smaller group than usual, run tirelessly to the wet sand left by retreating waves where they plunge their short, slightly thick black bills. A little while after seeing them I sit down to watch them because I’ve noticed something.

The sanderlings’ bills are slightly open when in the sand. Using several short up and down motions the birds move forward, “plowing” the soaked sand. How? Because the sand is saturated, no furrow is left as would be in dried earth. This is a revelation to me. Because of this tiny detail the sanderling suddenly has become the most interesting “pencil pusher” on the beach. A wave comes in causing them to scurry lightning fast on spindly bent legs that look as if they are made from black wire. One whose brown head and sides are lighter than the rest faces me head on showing black shoulders, which aren’t as dark as the others. Man, you can see a lot if you look closely!

At 15 inches, willets are large sandpipers, which are uniformly dull brown with white breasts and bellies. Look closely and you’ll see a thin white oval around their eyes. In their simplicity is elegance. They have bills that are a little too long for their lean and stately bodies. The willets walk in shallow water holding out their bills, sometimes plunging them into the sand. Occasionally they come up with tiny white coquina shells in their slightly open bills, which resemble chopsticks.

Willets usually feed singly or in groups of twos and threes. Late one morning a group of 22 of them is at the water’s edge. It’s a convention! Half of the group is standing on one leg near shells, some of which look like tiny white cats’ paws and green weed. One willet stretches out a gray leg like a runner might do warming up. It half spreads a wing, showing the bold white black and white wing pattern that willets display in flight. Now half the group is sitting in the sand. A photographer tries to get close to snap their photo but they walk away. It’s siesta time. What are the willets doing? Maybe they’re digesting or just enjoying the sound of gently lapping of waves as I am.  

Snowy plovers are cousins to Long Island’s piping plovers. On the beach these 6.25-inch birds are all but impossible to see unless moving. Their pale brown and white bodies, light gray legs and feet make them almost indistinguishable from the bone white, shell strewn sand. One morning I come across three of them. We all stop moving and I’m afforded a fairly close look at this bird, which is on the threatened list in Florida. Two have a black horizontal line on their foreheads like a miner’s lamp and a dark line below and to the rear of their small eye, which looks liquid black in the strong morning sun. The lighter one stands in a small “crater” in the sand making me look twice because it is banded with a bright green tag. Where’ve you been? Their diminutive bills resemble the black tips on tiny library pencils. It occurs to me that I’ve never seen them eat nor do I know what they feed on.

One step at a time I tell myself, you’re just becoming familiar with them. Tomorrow the beach will be different than it is today and happily, the detective work of birding will continue.