Archive for Shorebirds

Spotted Sandpiper adult 9/12/18

These constantly bobbing and teetering sandpipers are one of the few breeding shorebird species in New England. There are 3 plumages, breeding adult, winter adult, and juvenile. Only the breeding adult sports the spots, and in just a few weeks  this bird will have none. Unlike most shorebirds, female Spotteds are polyandrous, laying several clutches with different males, and it’s the male that incubates and raises the young. When seen flying short distances they have a distinctive stiff-winged flight pattern, low over the water. They may wander through flocks of other shorebirds, but don’t really join them, and fly separately if the flock is spooked.

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Black-bellied Plover molting male 9/3/18

Black-bellieds are North America’s largest Plover being roughly the size of a small gull. There was a second plover with this one that spooked and flew off and which had much less black in the face, throat and belly—a female. This one you can still see the outline of the black breeding plumage starting at the bill and extending down the throat and belly, all the way behind the legs. It’s getting mottled now, beginning the molt into winter plumage. In another few weeks this bird will have a soft mottled gray upperside with a white belly, earning it the name it’s known by outside of North America—the Grey Plover. All plumages of Black-bellied Plovers can be told by black axillaries under the wing, that is they all have black armpits which you can see when they take off or land, or are in flight.

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Three migrating Greater Yellowlegs 6/8/18

Not the most stunning photo of Greater Yellowlegs, but so typical of how I often find them. They are a little nervous because I am poking up into the sky many times their size and getting closer. But all I need to do is stop, squat, become another rock sticking up out of the mud, and they go back to dancing around the shallows for little things to snatch. These are Yellowlegs which should be self-evident, and Greater not Lesser Yellowlegs for 2 reasons, the first being that the bills of all three are longer than their head is wide, and the second being that you can see the spotting under their folded wings (along the flanks), continues all the way back to the undertail. There are other clues, but those are the ones evident at this distance. They are Tringa sandpipers or “shanks” like the Willet I started this week of shorebirds with, but unlike the Willets they are migrants heading farther north, not to the Arctic tundra like all the little sandpipers, but to the bogs and marshes of boreal Canada that sweep across the continent.

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Ruddy Turnstone female 6/4/18

Turnstones use their short pointy bills like shovels, digging and flipping through the rocks and seaweed at the edge of the sea for invertebrate snacks. Their bright orange legs and harlequin markings stand out in all seasons, but the rusty wings that come with breeding plumage make them one of the more colorful shorebirds on the spring beach. This one’s female, males have more black in the face and breast and the rusty patches in the wings are more distinct. They are pigeon-sized with a bolder wing pattern than most making them easy to pick out in a mixed flock of flying shorebirds. They’re long distance migrants with some traveling to the high Arctic from South America, while at the same time its not unusual to find some wintering on the Maine coast.

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Semipalmated Sandpipers 6/2/18

Semipalmated Sandpipers are small and probably the most abundant of all the shorebird species you’ll see running about the beach or on mudflats during spring migration. They have dark legs, straight black bills, short necks, some faint streaking across the light breast (but no streaking on their flanks), with mottled wings and back that can appear either brownish or gray. They winter on the shores of South America and southern North America, and gather by the thousands on their long trek north to the Arctic tundra breeding grounds. Like the Semipalmated Plovers posted the other day, they have a bit of webbing between their toes. They are 1 of the 5 smallish sandpiper species that are together known as peeps.

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Semipalmated Plover male and female 5/31/18

I try to avoid bird photos with busy backgrounds like this one, but there’s two interesting things in this image worth pointing out. Most field guides as a rule don’t mention the sexual dimorphism in shorebirds, perpetuating the idea that the sexes look exactly alike. I’m guessing the reason is that shorebirds are already so tricky to ID, they don’t want to push it with even subtler distinctions. But here’s an example of a male and female Semipalmated Plover. Plover and not sandpiper because the bill is short and the body is stockier, and semipalmated because there’s a bit of webbing between the toes (but nothing like say a duck or seagull). Now look at the male bird in the foreground and notice all the black around the face, while in the female behind the black single ringed collar is really dark brown, as is the face mask except for the forehead. The other thing I wanted to point out is a new discovery for me, and that’s the thin but bright yellow eye-ring, which is part of the bird’s breeding plumage that you won’t see when these birds migrate back through in the fall.

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Willets 5/30/18

Willets are large and long-legged shorebirds that nest locally in salt marshes from Virginia to Cape Breton. There’s also a western subspecies that breeds in prairie potholes and other freshwater wetlands. They belong to sandpipers of the genus “Tringa,” also known as the “shanks” and which also includes the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. But this bird has gray legs and may as well be called Grayshanks. You can’t see it in this photo but they have a bold black and white striped pattern in their open wings.

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