Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Shorebird season (or, will it still be there?)
It's taken me a while to warm up to shorebirding. It's not that I dislike shorebirds, as they are certainly inoffensive creatures; it's just that they are so hard to identify. For years I was convinced that some were bigger and some were smaller, but except for that, they all look exactly the same.
And if you don't like shorebirds, then the first three weeks of August are pretty much a birding bummer. The fledglings are growing up, and the summer is winding down. Each stroll through the woods or across the prairie is more still and silent. Fall migration is just around the corner. For the sandpipers, it's already here.
Last year, I finally started to get the knack of identifying shorebirds. It helped that it was an extremely dry year, creating vast fields of mudflats at Emiquon and along Lake Decatur. Late August and early September at Lake Decatur was spectacular, and as I happened to work just a mile or so down the road, I was able to go out and study the birds just about every day. I got my "lifer" black-bellied plover, sanderling, Baird's sandpiper, black tern (not a shorebird, but still awesome), American pipit (same comment as black tern), and most exciting of all...whimbrel. I missed the willet, though.
Up until then, I'd had a serious challenge just finding shorebirds. It took me a while to get the hang of searching for "fluddles" and mud flats at just the right time of year. And then last year, what a bonanza! I could just pop out on my lunch break, set up my scope, and study them at my leisure.
This also helped.... I highly recommend it.
This year, it's been a lot wetter, and a lot more hit or miss. The Emiquon Refuge along the Illinois River Valley, for example, was flooded for much of the spring and summer. But finally, some interesting bird sightings were showing up on the Internet, including potential life birds marbled godwit and willet.
Finally, after being tantalized by these reports for a couple of weeks, Greenturtle and I finally had a chance to go out there. "Chasing" a good bird sighting is always so suspenseful..."will it" still be there?
There were a ton of shorebirds at Chataqua National Wildlife Refuge, at both the Eagle Bluff and Goofy Ridge levees, more than I've seen on past visits. I saw both yellowlegs, pectoral, semipalmated and least sandpipers, and my first of year stilts.
When we parked at the Goofy Ridge area, as we were strolling to the levee, we heard the sound of gunshots. I reassured Greenturtle that it's not hunting season, nor we were in an area where we should be in danger even if it was. Still, I was wondering myself what was going on.
As I walked up to the levee, I saw a big blue pickup truck on a gravel road over the water to the right. Another crack of gunshot rang out, and then the driver took off down the road. WTF? As I said, it's not hunting season...and anyway, what kind of hunting is allowed through the window of your truck? I suspect that the person was up to no good, and drove away when he saw potential witnesses. But what on earth could he have been shooting at? Hopefully not sandpipers!
It was a long walk out to the productive mud flats, but I added my first of year semipalmated plovers to my list. I also noticed that Greenturtle was not behind me. Normally, I don't worry about things like that but after the mystery shooter in the pickup, I was a bit concerned. Luckily, he ambled along a couple of minutes later; while I'd been studying shorebirds, he'd been more interested in turtles.
Our next stop was Emiquon, and at first I was afraid it was going to be a bust. We walked along the levee by the "North Globe" area, which had looked promising on my last visit. But the only birds we saw, apart from a couple of killdeer and great egrets, were hundreds of swallows swooping overhead.
Despite the best efforts of these little birds, there were still a lot of insects pinging through the air. "The swallows aren't doing their jobs!" I announced, as some unspecified sort of gnat tried to fly up my nose.
On a whim, we turned onto a road that I had always thought didn't look promising, Prairie Road. There was a small area overlooking the water. We got out, and saw some snowy egrets...very exciting, as I haven't seen one of those for years.
Another birder was packing up his stuff. "Did you see the willet?" he asked.
And there it was! "Will it" still be there? Luckily, yes!
How about you? Have you seen any good shorebirds recently?