Friday, September 19, 2014

Signature Sandpipers II: Baird's Sandpiper and other peeps

[Lake St. Clair Metropark. Sept. 2014]

In our second post covering migrating shorebirds, we look at 5 small sandpipers that all look superficially similar:
  • Baird's Sandpiper
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Sanderling
  • Pectoral Sandpiper
Named by Elliott Coues after the giant of Amerian birding, Spencer Fullerton Baird,  Baird's Sandpiper is a passage migrant through the US. It breeds in the high Arctic and winters as far south as Tierra del Fuego, at the very tip of the South American continent.

Baird's Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Barid's Sandpipers mainly use a central flyway down the middle of the country which gradually fans out as they travel South; eventually spreading from Baja California to the Gulf coast. I have not observed them in Southwest Florida, however, but understand they are sometimes reported from Merrit Island NWR and the Panhandle.

Baird's Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark -- notice the long wings

Identification characteristics to look for include remarkably long wings and a dark rump. Indeed, the primaries will extend noticeably beyond the tail when the wings are folded (see first photo). The only other sandpiper that shares this feature is the White-rumped Sandpiper -- but, it has a white rump instead of a dark one.

Baird's Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

The light brown streaking on their face and breast and the white edges to their feathers are also distinctive.

Our next shorebird is Semipalmated Sandpiper. A species this blogger was surprised to learn is under intense ecological threat.

Semipalmated Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Recently estimated to number in the millions, this small sandpiper has now been classified as "Near Threatened" as a result of a huge decline in its population -- primarily suffered in its wintering grounds in Suriname and adjoining countries in South America.

Semipalmated Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

This tiny sandpiper, like the Baird's, is found in the Eastern half of the US only as a passage migrant -- neither breeding nor overwintering in this country.

Semipalmated Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Distinguished from the Semipalmated by its yellow legs and finer bill, the Least Sandpiper is an abundant migrant and overwintering peep in the US.

Least Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Least Sandpipers are the smallest shorebird on the planet -- no bigger than a house sparrow.

Least Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Unlike the sandpipers reviewed so far, which are exclusive to the Americas, the Sanderling is a global shorebird.

Sanderling seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

This pale and plump shorebird is known for forming large coastal flocks in the winter; indeed the sight of foraging Sanderlings at the beach is a familiar, nay ubiquitous, feature at Florida's beaches in winter.

We conclude with the the Pectoral Sandpiper:

Pectoral Sandpiper seen at Lake Sterling State Park

Usually regular in Fall at Lake St. Clair Metropark (see this post from last year), lakeshore habitat alteration by Park officials has made shorebird observation decidedly patchy this year at this venue with no reported Pectoral Sandpipers. However, a trip to Sterling State Park resulted in several, but exceedingly distant, sightings (see above).

Shorebird observation offers many rewards not least of which is a fuller appreciation of the challenges that our peeps face in their formidable migrations -- with some journeys exceeding 9,000 miles!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Signature Sandpipers in Migration I: Stilt Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper plus Lesser Yellowlegs

[Lake St. Clair Metropark, AugSep. 2014]

In the Fall, the Spring splendor of warblers in bright colors and crisp tones turns into a migrating melange of the dull, drab and ambiguous -- a perfect excuse to focus on migrating shorebirds instead!

We review 4 migrating sandpipers -- all with yellow or greenish legs: Lesser Yellowlegs and  Stilt, Solitary, and Spotted Sandpipers.

We start with the Stilt Sandpiper:

Stilt Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

The Stilt Sandpiper is somewhat odd looking -- it has the characteristic bill of a Curlew Sandpiper (a speices not normally observed in the US, but seen in this blog at venues in India or Australia) and the body and legs which are reminiscent of Lesser Yellowlegs (see a comparison between the two here as observed in juxtaposition in Puerto Rico).

This gives the Stilt Sandpiper the overall appearance of a long-legged Dowitcher; but it is the Curlew Sandpiper that is considered to be the Stilt Sandpiper's closest relative.

Stilt Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

If you miss the Stilt Sandpiper in migration, you may yet see it in Winter. While its wintering grounds center around tropical America, the winter range does barely extend into Southern Florida. Indeed, this blogger has observed them at the STA-5 location during trips coordinated by Tropical Audubon.

Of the 4 shorebirds profiled here, it is only our next, the Solitary Sandpiper, that is not seen in the US in Winter.

Solitary Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Sharing the greenish legs of the Stilt Sandpiper, the Solitary's closest relative is the Green Sandpiper of the Old World. The prominent eye-ring, spotted back and olive bill are all distinctive.

Solitary Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Usually found alone or in small groups, it is this behavioral characteristic that betrays the origin of its name (although, truthfully, perhaps many more sandpiper species would fall within the ambit of this logic -- eg., Spotted Sandpiper).

Lesser Yellowlegs was also observed at this venue:

Lesser Yellowlegs seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

The bright yellow legs, spotted back and less prominent eye-ring distinguish it from the Solitary Sandpiper.

Lesser Yellowlegs seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

It is generally poor practice to draw taxonomic conclusions from similarity in nomenclature. And, indeed, the Lesser Yellowlegs is not closely related to Greater Yellowlegs although the latter visually appears to be a larger version of the former. As a matter of fact, the closest relative of the Lesser Yellowlegs is the Willet. Who knew!

Finally, we conclude with a familiar shorebird, the Spotted Sandpiper:

Spotted Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Unlike the other shorebirds profiled here that breed in the high Arctic, the Spotted Sandpiper breeds widely across the continental US and can be seen commonly wherever freshwater can be found. It is closely related to the Common Sandpiper of the Old World which looks very similar (excepting the spots).

Spotted Sandpiper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

This group of medium-sized sandpipers with yellowish legs provides a wonderful example of how superficially similar shorebirds can yet be so different in behavior, habitat and distribution.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Northern Bobwhite, Red-headed Woodpecker and Sandhill Crane

[Lehigh Acres, FL. Aug 2014]

The distribution of bird families in the US is not even across the Eastern and Western halves of the continent. We, in the East, are considerably richer in Warblers, Herons, and Shorebirds. However, the West wins in Thrashers, Tanagers and Quail.

For example, of all our Quail species -- Montezuma, Scaled, Gambel's, Mountain, California and Northern Bobwhite -- it is only the latter that is found in the Eastern US. And, seeing our only Eastern Quail -- the Bobwhite -- is not as easy as it used to be. In fact, since the '70's, the Bobwhite has lost over 80% of its population due to the same familiar yet fatal reasons that caused the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon a hundred years ago: habitat loss and hunting.

Thus, thanks to an invite from Bob Pelkey, I jumped at the opportunity to observe our only Eastern quail as well as observe the spectacular Red-headed Woodpecker at a newly discovered hotspot in Lehigh Acres, FL.

We start with Northern Bobwhite:

Northern Bobwhite observed at Lehigh Acres

The male of the species is a real stunner -- the face is white and boldly marked in black while the upperparts are richly patterned in chestnut and black. However, Bobwhite are shy birds and it is infinitely easier to hear the distinctive two-tone "Bob White" whistle of the male than to observe them out in the open.

Northern Bobwhite observed at Lehigh Acres

Having dipped on Montezuma Quail (but not with Scaled Quail) in Texas earlier this summer (see Big Bend Post here), it was a real treat to observe my second quail species of the year.

The main attraction, however, at this venue is the Red-headed Woodpecker:

Red-headed Woodpecker seen in Lehigh Acres

Our most striking woodpecker, the Red-headed is a real stunner with its white, black and red color scheme. It is unusual in many respects -- it is not sexually dimorphic (unlike our other woodpeckers) and it also an unusually eclectic diet consisting of nuts, fruit and insects -- the latter it not only extracts by drilling into trees but also from the ground and air.

 Red-headed Woodpecker seen in Lehigh Acres

Sadly, the one thing the Red-headed Woodpecker shares in common with the Northern Bobwhite is its conservation status of "Near Threatened" -- having suffered a precipitous decline of 65% over the last 4 decades.

The other woodpecker observed was the always delightful Northern Flicker:

Northern Flicker seen at Lehigh Acres

Finally, as this venue is not far from Harns Marsh, a quick detour on the return yielded, in addition to the familiar waders, a family of Sandhill Crane:

Sandhill Crane seen at Harns Marsh

Being generally accustomed to seeing this species in Winter when they are draped in silvery grey, the prominent ocher coloration of the crane's alternate plumage was a nice surprise and a perfect way to cap an excellent morning of birding.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Willet Conundrum and SW Florida Shorebird Review

[SW Florida Coastal Hotspots. August 2014]

Shorebird identification presents many challenges to both the initiated and the uninitiated -- Short-billed vs. Long-billed Dowitcher; Black-bellied Plover vs. Golden Plover; Baird's Sandpiper vs. White-rumped Sandpiper; Semipalmated vs. Western Sandpiper; to name but a few identification conundrums.

However, should inter-species identification be insufficiently daunting, the courageous birder is encouraged to test their skills at disambiguating shorebird subspecies. And, a great example of this genre is the one that involves distinguishing between Western Willet and Eastern Willet (both sufficiently different that their future candidacy for full-species status is deemed likely and perhaps even inevitable; see Sibley's Article).

Eastern Willet observed at Tigertail Beach, Marco Island, on 7/9/2008

Both Eastern and Western Willets are observed in SW Florida -- the former only in passage (this blogger has seen them in Fall migration from early July through early August although I have not recorded the dates of their passage in Spring) and the latter as a Fall and Winter visitor.

Looking at the Eastern Willet (in alternate plumage) above, two things stand out: the extensive marking and barring on the back, breast and flanks and the overall brown coloration.

 Western Willet seen at Lucy Evans Baylands Preserve, San Francisco Bay, on 3/29/2013

 Western Willet seen at Laguna Beach, coastal Orange County, on 4/1/2013

In contrast, the Western Willet appears decidedly grey rather than earthy brown and the markings are less extensive (especially on the back and flanks). Of course, when the birds are not in alternate plumage, these clues are insufficient and other diagnostic features must be employed.

Eastern Willet observed at Tigertail Beach, Marco Island, on 7/9/2008

And, these additional features are: the bill (Eastern's is stouter and more compact; Western is longer and tapers to a thin point); the shape of the crown (Eastern's is flatter compared to Western which is rounder); and body structure (Eastern's is slimmer and shorter necked).

With this backdrop, the following Willet, which was observed in early August at Bunche Beach, should not present much of a challenge:

Willet seen at Bunche Beach

And so now the question: which subspecies is it?

More on the differences between the two Willet subspecies may be found here: Aba Article on Willet Subspecies.

Willet seen at Bunche Beach

Lastly -- this Willet in basic plumage also provides a good example -- the bill tapers to a fine point, the crown is nicely rounded -- and therefore, this fits the characteristics expected of the Western subspecies.

Other shorebirds observed included Short-billed Dowitcher:

Short-billed Dowitcher seen at Bunche Beach

Mercifully, Long-billed Dowitchers favor freshwater and are not observed coastally making every Dowitcher observed at Bunche Beach, by default, a Short-billed.

And, Marbled Godwits whose numbers are rising at this venue:

Marbled Godwit seen at Bunche Beach

Spotted Sandpiper at Tigertail was observed with spots rather than sans spots (as in basic plumage):

Spotted Sandpiper seen at Tigertail Lagoon
The ubiquitous Semipalmated Plovers were seen scurrying about:

Plus, Black-bellied Plover:

Western Sandpiper:

Non-shorebirds included Burrowing Owl, Roseate Spoonbill and White Ibis:

Burrowing Owls are reliably observed on Marco Island on vacant lots:

Roseate Spoonbill seen at the Lagoon:

Roseate Spoonbill in "Sky Pointing" pose at Tigertail Lagon
White Ibis:

And, finally, a bonus reptile -- a Florida Box Turtle:

Florida Box Turtle seen at Tigertail Beach (monochrome)

Willets abound on our beaches and while they are generally overlooked because of their abundance, a closer look at the right time of year can tell which are the 35% of the total population that are classified as Eastern Willets and are just passing through; and, which are the other subspecies -- the more numerous Western Willets that will overwinter here.