May Birds, part 3 (a salute to shorebirds)



Shorebirds and I go great together.


They like mud.

I do not profess a particular fondness for the substance, but I will admit I find my boots and jeans covered in it from time to time.


They spend time by water.*

I enjoy chilling where they chill.

*Okay, so not every member of this group lives up to their collective name. Upland Sandpipers are a notable exception, and species like Killdeer spend a lot of their time on dry ground. “Shorebird” refers to a group of related species. In North America the resident shorebirds are plovers, sandpipers and their relatives, stilts and avocets, and oystercatchers.


They’re easier to see than warblers.

Not that I don’t enjoy finding woodland birds hidden in bushes and treetops, but there’s something fun about going to a pond, mudflat, or beach and the birds are out there in the open.


They’re not always easy to ID.

That forces you to slow down and really SEE the birds.


They got long legs, pointy bills, and cute feet.

I like that.

And man, are they fun to watch.

Different species forage differently. American Avocets move as a group, meticulously crossing the shallows. Wilson’s Phalaropes spin in circles to stir up prey. Other species have approaches that look more chaotic to us, running through the mud looking to find what they can. All of these methods work for the birds and provide enjoyment for us birders.

A Least Sandpiper last week did a cute bird move. I was watching a flock of 17 as they combed through the corn stalks in a overflowing pond. They are a small, compact species. Being brown and not much larger than most songbirds, it took a while to pick all them out of the scene. The particular sandpiper in question…

stood perfectly still,

picked up its cute little foot,

placed it on its head…

and began to scratch away.

Totally adorbs.

I didn’t get a video or photo of that (my camera was running low on battery, and the only video I have from that day is short as can be), but the image is seared into my brain. I remember the feathers on its head getting all messy and how FUNNY it looked with its foot all the way up there and its head cocked slightly. Imagine if we could do that!

Least Sandpipers not scratching their heads, but one is engaged in preening behavior

I’ve seen a few other shorebird species recently, with 13 total for the year. That’s not a bad number for a Midwestern birder now that I think about it, but there’s some cuties I wish I’d have seen. Where my plovers at?

My shorebird lifer in 2019 was a Hudsonian Godwit on a rural pond north of DeForest. Godwits are large by shorebird standards, close in size to our smaller ducks. Being that it was a lifer, I spent some time examining its features. It was either just starting to enter breeding plumage or it was younger, as the plumage was not very crisp. However, I was able to make out a few distinct areas on its body: the wings were medium gray, the back was mottled, and the belly had hints of a rusty brown. Its coolest feature was the long, slightly upturned bill that was reddish near the base and became black at the tip.

First-of-year updates (all shorebirds):

May 16th- the day of the Least headscratch
172: Wilson’s Phalarope- a male and a female. Interestingly, like other phalaropes the female is more colorful than the male. This is a rare trait among birds.
173: Dunlin- a squat shorebird with a black belly

May 18th
174: Hudsonian Godwit
175: Red-necked Phalarope- uncommon in these parts, as are Hudsonian Godwits. This was the first time I’ve seen one without a flock.
176: Short-billed Dowitcher- only short-billed relative to the Long-billed Dowitcher (and their bills aren’t that different anyway- so many species are named after field marks that are only apparent in lab settings)

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