Piering Back Through Time

August is often a quiet birding month. If you are fortunate enough to be by the seashore or along a flyway, you can witness the beginning of the migration season as shorebirds move through. Why do shorebirds depart so early?

Well here in New Jersey, we’re quite fortunate when it comes to shore birds!  We have our endangered Piping Plovers nesting on our beaches and the Ruddy Turnstones refueling on their migration, but oftentimes don’t realize the Ruddy Turnstone’s behaviors are more typical of their family (Scolopacidae). Many of the shorebirds migrate to the far northern reaches of this hemisphere. Not sure what marketing strategies they used, but it worked. “Experience Long Days in Short & Sweet Summers”?

Goodness knows I’d response to such an advertisement.  And the shorebirds definitely do.  Take a look at the two maps below.  Gleaned from the riches of the internet, on the left we have a generalized map showing the migration pathways of shorebirds between the polar reaches.  Most of our neotropicals (sciencespeak for summer birds found in the Western Hemisphere) prefer to spend their winters in more climates with a shorter commute.  However, the shorebirds hold most of the records for long distance migration (the way Kenya produces champion Olympic runners).

  • About ~1800 species perform long distance migrations (18%).
  • White-rumped Sandpiper flies 15,000 miles one way.
  • Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica fly 11,000 miles nonstop.

Now the map on the right shows breed locations for Snow Geese.  While not a shore bird, the map depicts the preference for extreme latitudinal breeding grounds also evidenced by dozens of shorebirds.  These habitats are rich with the food resources needed by the birds. So why do shorebirds migrate so early?  Long commute.

So back to birding here in the mid-Atlantic.  August saw me house-sitting once more in New York.   While house-sitting I had a few opportunities to go a birding hotspot in the county known the “the Pier”.  It’s not wooden nor is it like a boardwalk.   It’s a one-mile road once used for military purposes now converted into a paved and tree-lined walk into the Hudson River (that generally keeps your feet dry – bonus!). This is a nice spot for ducks, shorebirds, warblers, and some raptors depending on the season.  It juts out the western shore of the Hudson River as a signal to all weary birds they can find refuge here.  Just south of the Pier is a marsh which further extends sanctuary for these feathered friends.  It’s probably the best/only shorebird birding location in Rockland county.

There have been some enviable birds seen here.  Generally not by me.  But what I’m trying to build for myself is a solid working knowledge of the usual suspects at this site so I can find the fun ones.  So the remainder of this post is the dialogue in my head as I processed and assessed these images.   It’s like a note to myself for in the future when I forget what the shorebirds look it because it happens every year.

Mallard in flight. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Mallard in flight. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

As I continue working towards improvement in bird photography, I’d like to focus on birds in motion.  (Some of this may need to wait until I get a functional camera).  I like this photo though despite the blur and shadow.   The mallards are around year-round, but I do want to try to remember to appreciate them!

Osprey on the prowl. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Osprey on the prowl. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Another fairly frequent visitor: the Osprey.  Usually if I remember to look up often enough and scan with the binoculars, I can find at least one Osprey.  Another in motion photo.  In this one, the M-shape that helps to identify the species is less evident.   I know some birders who strongly feel Ospreys must be observed for it to be considered a good day of birding.  Thus the 24th must have been a good day.

Least Sandpiper forages among large rocks at high tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Least Sandpiper forages among large rocks at high tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

And to close with some photos of shorebirds.  Which is what one particularly seeks in August.   Notorious for traveling in large groups and looking like carbon copies, shorebirds can be very frustrating to identify.   I know when taking these photos in August, my focus was on photography rather than identification.

Least Sandpiper gazes out at the tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Least Sandpiper gazes out at the tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Both the above photos featured the Least Sandpiper.  There are three small sandpipers in the region collectively known as peeps.  Please don’t eat them, they’re not as sweet as they sound!  In fact I would argue the opposite of sweet is not bitter, but frustrating!  How often is a day of birding either characterized as sweet or frustrating?   The Least is the smallest peep, but when you’re lacking a ruler and distance is an issue 1/4 inch differences don’t help!

The most obvious give away are the legs.  Take a look at the two above: yellow.  Now if in deep water, mud, or shade or poor lighting (90% of all situations +/- 5.5%) the yellow isn’t obvious.

What else stands out to me?  There seems to be a bit more of an intentional eye line, the feathers have more of a rust color, the bill seems a bit shorter?

Semipalmated Sandpiper hunkers down to wait for better times, or tides. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Semipalmated Sandpiper hunkers down to wait for better times, or tides. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Now this fellow above is different.  Legs are darker.  No discernible eye line. More like an eye spot? Brown-brown feathers.  I’d say this is a Semipalmated Sandpiper.  Which I believe in the Mid-Atlantic region is the most common.  (Despite what my August collection of photos appears to indicate!)  Slightly larger, which I know from my bird guide and websites, not the photo!

Least Sandpiper scrambles at the water's edge. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Least Sandpiper scrambles at the water’s edge. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Last and least!  The Least Sandpiper here again.   Note the rust-tinges, yellow legs, eye line.   Also, it seems that the upper breast, just below the neck region is also buffier than in other sandpipers (comparison not yet available).  Note that the Pectoral Sandpiper who is better known for this feature has coloration much further down and is a larger sandpiper.

I also just really like this photo.  It’s one in a series of 5 taken moments apart and all the others are just slightly out of focus with my autofocus.  Thanks, camera.

Additional Reading:
Ecological Studies and Environmental Monitoring at Bylot Island Sirmilik National Park.
Bird Migration. Wikipedia.

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3 thoughts on “Piering Back Through Time

  1. Yeah! I’m hoping to get in some shore birding this weekend and reacquainting with old friends like Pectoral Sandpiper.

    This is a pretty quantitative post here in addition to the sharp Sandpiper shots. Thanks for dropping some knowledge on me.

    I hope to get up to that arctic in the next few years and enjoy those summer days, lay a few eggs, etc.

  2. Rainy Thursday. Far more entertaining to spend a few hours reflecting on birds than grading. I’m booked for this weekend with non-birding adventures, but am hoping to get to Cape May the following weekend.

    I was going to reward myself with a summer in Alaska when I completed my Masters, but I ended up being in a different economic situation than I anticipated. Hopefully after my phd I’ll have the time.

  3. Pingback: Blog Birding #205 « ABA Blog

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