shorebirds

The Timberdoodle’s Dusk Dance

The American Woodcock – nicknamed the timberdoodle, bog sucker, and Labrador twister – is a shorebird with a stocky body, a mottled black and brown back, and a long, thin beak to probe soft ground for food (earthworms, insects, snails, etc). Woodcocks spend their winters or live as year-round residents in southeast United States. They migrate to the Northeast to breed in young forests. Their movement peaks in March in Westchester County, using the Hudson River as a guide. Woodcocks prefer to forage on moist ground, rhythmically rocking back and forth as it steps forward, attempting to disturb the ground to find food. Their dance-like movements have caused some amusement on the Internet. Their large, beady eyes are near the back of their heads so they can watch out for predators as they forage.

Woodcocks charm birders with their extravagant and unique courtship. From March to June, their displays and courtships occur at dawn and dusk, held at open fields and forest clearings. Males peent repeatedly to attract females’ attention. They then shoot up to the sky, spiraling and spiraling. After reaching up to 300 feet, they descend in a zig-zag, chirping, wings whistling and twittering. Their landing is silent. (You might see the woodcock ascend and descend, but not where it lands.) And thus repeats until success.

When I learned about the woodcock’s existence, it was through this Lang Elliot video. During the one minute and ten seconds, the woodcock turns 360° as it occasionally puffs out a nerdy peent, its entire body bobbing up each time. I fell in love with the shorebird so suddenly I teared up. It’s both cute and hilarious.

Not long after I learned that Saw Mill River Audubon hosts a woodcock walk at Croton Point Park every mid-March. I was never so excited to observe a potential life bird. I had to hear the peents for myself. I couldn’t contain my anticipation. The day before, I made my coworkers watch the video at any free moment they had. I wanted to spread awareness of this unbelievably endearing shorebird.

Just before dusk, we walked the road at the base of the landfill, carefully treading on the side of the path. It was a bit too breezy than we wanted. (Woodcocks dislike wind, preferring calmer air when they want to forage or display. They also like warmer temperatures and will not be active when the temperature is below 40°.) Regardless, we were caught off guard: a woodcock in plain sight right at the corner of the woods. It stood completely still for us for about thirty seconds before it finally fled to the phragmites half, disturbed by our large group. When the dusk nearly passed, we heard a second woodock briefly peent-ing. That was all we had for the evening. But I had both seen and heard woodcocks. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I struggled to suppress squeals of elation when I heard my first real life peent.

The walk I attended the following year had an excellent turn-up. We heard at least six different woodcocks calling, their tinny peents sounding from multiple directions. I almost teared up again. When there was very little light, and the sky and landfill were tinted dark blue, the woodcocks engaged in their courtship flights. We watched their silhouettes as they catapulted themselves upward and – after a pause – zig-zagged downward. We could hear their wings twitter.

This year, an ill-timed Nor-easter occurred on March 14th, during the woodcock’s peak migration period. SMRA’s walk was scheduled for the 19th, and Muscoot Farm’s for the 18th. Both, of course, were canceled. 16 inches fell in my area. People recorded as much as two to three feet around the surrounding counties. No way would woodcocks be able to forage and perform their ritual with all this snow.

Before dusk on the day after the storm, I was driving home and stopped at the three-way intersection across from the Blue Mountain Middle School – one of the busier intersections in my fragmented-forest-suburbia. In a span of two seconds, the following happened: Just as I made the sharp right turn, I saw a woodcock on the right side of the road; and when I was about to run it over, it took off. I couldn’t pull over, so I stared after it wide-eyed and open-mouthed as I continued to drive. That was not how I imagined I would get my First of Year. And I got my first real good look.

It’s understandable why the woodcock liked this risky spot. The intersection is by a lake, from which flows a stream, which passes under the intersection. The snow plow cleaned the road a little too much on one side and exposed a lot of fresh soil. The woodcock had found a little haven to have a breather.

Apparently, the March 14 snowstorm really threw off the woodcocks. When I returned home and read my email, I learned that my incident wasn’t isolated. Via the New York State Birds Listserv, birdwatchers in the New York City area reported a woodcock fallout (“oodles of doodles,” as someone put it on the New York Birders Facebook page). Through the 15th to 19th, birders sighted dozens of woodcocks in Central Park – as many as 40 on the 15th. They were easy to spot because of the omnipresent snow. They huddled wherever they could find open water and exposed ground. Local Red-tailed Hawks made effortless prey of them. News of the fallout made it to the New York Times, which reported that the Wild Bird Fund treated 55 woodcocks overall. People were finding them all over Manhattan, starved or injured from having flown into high-story buildings. Anders Peltomaa, who occasionally contributes to the NYS Birds Listserv, wrote up a report for the Linnaean Society of New York. (You’ve also got to take a look at the close-up photographs he uploaded.)

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SMRA rescheduled their woodcock walk to this past Sunday, April 9, three weeks after the initial date. The weather seemed ideal: no more snow on the ground, no precipitation of any kind, no wind, and the temperature dropping no lower than 45°. As we waited for people to gather in the parking lot, starlings buzzed and gurgled, waiting for nighttime in their roosting trees. Attendance didn’t exceed 15 people. Daylight sluggishly faded away between 7:30 and 8:30. A near full moon out-shined many stars and alighted the ground. A female Sharp-shinned Hawk hunted at the base of the landfill, shortly disappearing after she realized we would be sticking around. Long after sunset, dozens of robins sang and whinnied and yeeped. They darted one by one from the landfill to the trees until darkness completely fell. Uncountable Spring Peepers called. As we walked along the edge of the path, we listened and watched all around us for any sound and for any movement from a woodcock: the edge of the woods, the field in front of the phragmites, the side of the landfill, the plateau of the landfill. Our guide tried three times to coax responses with playback, sounding off peents, then the twittering wings, then the male’s confrontational string of clicks. Only a few of us, including the guide, heard the virtually inaudible wing twitterings, perhaps from two woodcocks. After that, silence once again. We extended the walk a bit by double-backing and strolling around another part of the landfill. Only the spring peepers announced their presence.

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Muscoot Farm also rescheduled their walk, to this weekend. I will be attending that one as well. Anything goes – I’m not expecting much activity, but with birdwatching, you learn to not expect, thus avoiding disappointment. Given the harsh impact March’s Nor’easter had on the woodcocks, it’s hard to say how badly they were affected until next year. If another Nor’easter doesn’t disrupt them again.

Early Morning at Nickerson Beach

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Adult Black Skimmer in flight. © S.G. Hansen

SMRA had a trip to Long Island. I was excited that there were only three of us: I; Anne Swaim, the trip leader; and Debbie, who had moved from South Africa to Westchester this past winter. I’d been anticipating birding for shorebirds at the beach since the songbird summer doldrums began. Debbie was ready to grab many lifers. Her U.S. list lacked shorebirds.

Our first stop was Nickerson Beach at Lookout Point. I could hear the Common Terns, Black Skimmers, and American Oystercatchers from the parking lot. At 6AM, the temperature already reached the 80s. The air felt humid. Even when we reached the shore, there wasn’t much of a breeze. Unsurprisingly, a few beachgoers had already arrived. Surprisingly, so had a couple dozen photographers, taking pictures of the shorebirds and terns.

There were a limited number of species, but the numbers were high. (Anne x’d almost half of the species on the eBird checklist.) In addition to Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, Common Terns, an OK variety of gulls: Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Laughing Gulls. I turned to every call I heard, every bird I saw flying overhead.

I settled on a small group of skimmers resting on the sand near the protected dunes. They preened, lay flat on their bellies, or simply stood. Several photographers crouched nearby, a couple rather close to them, perhaps less than fifteen feet away. Many of the skimmers took no notice. Two or three harassed the nearest photographers, circling around, crying, feinting collisions. Just when one would think the skimmers would hit the photographers, they sharply veered away. The photographers, too deeply focused, kept peering through their lenses.

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This photographer did get distracted. © S.G. Hansen

 

We immediately found what Anne came here to see. Beyond the line protecting the dunes were unseen countless skimmers, terns, and oystercatchers. And their babies. “Little fuzzies,” as Anne put it. Not even fifteen minutes after the trip officially began, my day was made. Waking up at 3:30 in the morning was more than worth it. I was giddier than Anne. And I may have gone overboard in expressing my enthusiasm for the cuteness.

Many of the babies must have stayed by the nests, hidden in the dune grasses. A few were out in the open, including a baby skimmer under its parent’s belly. Baby terns – if not trailing their parents for food – ambled around aimlessly, conscious of their surroundings, but not knowing what to do with themselves.

Two juvenile terns had a tug-o’- war over a fish tightly seized in their beaks. Their wings overlapped each other’s bodies in such a way that they looked like two drunken human friends shambling away from a bar. A curious baby tern watched and followed them around. I thought their parents would show up to break them up. The juveniles remained locked.

As much as I wanted to see who would win, I moved on and caught up with Anne and Debbie. Among the skimmers and terns was an oystercatcher family. They stayed just behind protection rope. The babies had the basic pattern of adult plumage, and already their legs and beaks were already long-ish and their heads nearly black. They climbed on a flat rock. A parent began walking towards the ocean. One of the two babies followed. It suddenly turned its attention elsewhere and fell behind. The parent stopped, repeatedly calling for it to keep following. (I don’t think I ever saw the parent blink during this half-minute. It was an odd sight, this red eye, surrounded by bright orange skin, constantly open.)

When the parent reached the sand freshly grazed by the waves, and plucked from the sand a tiny shell . The baby scurried to pick the shell from its parent’s bill. As the parent gradually moved down with the shoreline, the baby tentatively trailed. After a few more feedings, the parent thought its offspring might take a small step towards independence. Rather than passing food bill to bill, it dropped the shell. The baby ran up to pluck it from the sand. And so the routine went thereafter.

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Food time, starring American Oystercatchers. © S.G. Hansen

When they drew closer to us, we moved on so our presence wouldn’t interfere with them.

We stopped to observe a flock of thirty Sanderlings, our first peeps of the day and another lifer for Debbie. The Sanderlings didn’t sprint back and forth with the waves. Instead, they fed ten feet or so from the shoreline. Previously, I had only ever seen them in their winter plumage. We took the time to study their breeding plumage, noting the rufous coloring on their heads and backs.

After a few more minutes, we decided to turn back and visit our next location. On our way back to the parking lot, we came up to the same skimmer group, now smaller and farther from the dunes. No more photographers.

We spied two babies. There was a chance of observing them being fed as we did with the
oystercatchers. We waited a bit. Anne attached her iPhone to her scope to take a video. Eventually, one of babies began following an adult walking around. The adult ignored it. The baby gave up soon after. It disappeared in a shallow depression in the sand. (Just as well since Anne never pressed play.) It may have gone after the wrong adult, or tried to follow hoping to receive food regardless.

We tried to keep our distance from the skimmers as we passed by, but a couple adults thought we weren’t far away enough. They harassed us as they did with the photographers earlier. I knew they wouldn’t actually peck at or hit me, as gulls notoriously would. Still, the feinting coupled with their yelping began to faze me and I cowered behind Debbie.

After an hour and three-quarters of baby shorebirds and terns, it was time to find the peeps.

 

Surprise Sandpipers

A sandpiper strolls along the lake’s shoreline, back and forth, beak rapidly in and out of the sand. Its body is slim, a little more than half a foot in length. Its upperside is light brown and scaly, and it has yellowish legs and a white eyeline. Its behind bops up and down, exposing its stark white underside, to a soundless song.

I expected to see the Little Blue Heron – a rarity for Westchester County – from the day before so that I could reconfirm that I did see a Little Blue Heron. It would be my first extraordinary bird as a birder. Instead, at seven on this mid-July morning, I found a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper. My first shorebird.

I wasn’t surprised that I’d missed the Wood Ducks, Eastern Phoebes, Great Blue Herons, Warbling Vireos, and warblers all the years I lived by the lake (24, my age). But sandpipers? At this lake? So far inland, a fair distance from the Hudson River, among a woodsy suburban region where there are networks of back roads and cul-de-sacs, where trees grow wherever houses weren’t built? I didn’t known at the time that not all sandpipers live by saltwater. Besides the Spotted Sandpiper: Solitaries, Leasts, Lesser Yellowlegs, White-Rumped, and others reside by lakes, flooded fields, wet areas in woods, marshes, ponds, and mudflats.Generally, they feed on worms, snails, insects, and small crustaceans.

My timing couldn’t have been better. Because of the lack of long and steady rains, the lake’s water level was very low. Lowest I’d ever seen – up to thirty feet away from the usual shoreline. I could see how the small tributary at the westernmost corner carved the sediment. The lily pads that were usually in the middle of lake now sat limply on the lakebed, sometimes flapping in the wind. The exposed sand would look appealing to migrating sandpipers, which were already flying south, where their wintering residence ranges from North of Mexico to South America. Though this was my first time watching at the lake for these birds, I had a feeling that their number was high for this year.

Up until that morning, on July 17th, I also took the lake in general for granted. Once I left elementary school, I only went whenever my neighborhood held seasonal parties. So after I saw a Little Blue Heron and a sandpiper, I just had to go to the lake more often.

Before continuing, a forewarning. The best thing for me was have gone to the lake every day. I didn’t do that. I thought I did. Then I reviewed my eBird lists. I had visited irregularly, and even once went without birding there a week. I probably went so infrequently because I thought I’d keep better track of the sandpipers, albeit in my own peculiarly incorrect way. Because I observed at different times each day (early morning, late morning, mid-afternoon, late afternoon), my sightings of each sandpiper species were sporadic and I didn’t see them every time I went to the lake. Just when I thought, say, the Spotted officially left September 9, I’d see it again, to my astonishment, on the 18th.

Still, I only wanted to learn what other surprise sandpipers showed and watch them be sandpipers. They tended to settle on the western side of the lake, where the man-made beach – my observing point – is located. For at least two weeks, a Solitary hung around the Spotted, foraging and preening together mostly by the beach. The Solitary Sandpiper is larger and has a similar color scheme as the juvenile Spotted, only its upperside is slightly darker brown and speckled with dark brown spots. Its head tends to bob as it forages. Like the Blue Jay and Brown-headed Cowbird, it is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in nests belonging to several songbirds.

After the Solitary left, another Spotted – with winter plumage – came along. It stayed for at least a day (August 30th) before moving on.

On August 29th, late in the afternoon, when I last saw the Solitary (foraging with the Spotted on the opposite side of the lake), I had a frustrating moment. Six sandpipers clumped by the lily pad patch closest to the tributary. Since the trees shaded the area, I couldn’t make out their exact plumage. Getting closer wasn’t an option – I’d scare them away. I took notes of size, shape, beak length, and foraging behavior, but going through my Sibley’s, Peterson’s, and Stokes’ guides I became even more uncertain. At the least I discerned there were three species. Three teeny ones closely rested. The medium-sized one with a bold white eyeline foraged near them, clearly wanting to simultaneously establish its independence and its wanting to hang with the peeps. And another small one stayed relatively close to these four – as opposed to the Spotted and Solitary – though it foraged quite far from the shoreline.

I had to eventually roll with “just sandpipers.” My eBird list currently says one Semipalmated and three Leasts, plus shorebird sp. for the medium-sized sandpiper that I nearly marked as a White-rumped. I thought I deleted the input for the Semipalm and the Leasts days before. I’m embarrassed to alter it as this point. Would the scientists and eBird authorities even notice?

On September 7th, another group of bird arrived at the lake: two plovers. Specifically, 2 Killdeer. Killdeer are common all year round in most of the United States, including New York. Besides lakes, meadows, and wetland areas, they reside in parking lots, lawns and golf courses. They are well-known for their broken-wing act, luring predators away from their nests. I observed a pair that roosted twice at Lake Meahagh in Buchanan in the summer and even saw the fledglings, which look like puffballs nicely glued together. So I wasn’t amazed that these Killdeer were at the lake. As far as I know, they’re still here. I last saw them this morning. They keep to the northwestern-most corner, by the tributary. One morning, I arrived at the lake to find sleeping on the beach with a flock of Canada Geese.

Summer concludes. Days shorten, sunlight weakens. The last official “new” sandpiper to briefly stay at the lake is the Least Sandpiper (I ID’d them correctly. The size of sparrows, Leasts are the smallest shorebirds in the world. Spending their summers northern Canada, they are mostly seen as they migrate. They tend to flock in dozens and stick the oceanic shorelines and coastal mudflats. Brown on top and white on the bottom, with black beaks and yellow-green legs. If you’ve seen them, you know how incredibly cute they are. They look pudgy: they hunch as they forage.

These two Leasts booked their nights for only September 9th and 10th. On the 9th, they closely followed the Spotted along the beach, taking their time as they foraged. Their beaks probed the sand like delicate jackhammers. Once all three at last reached the cattails on the left side of the beach, the Spotted suddenly took off, calling several peet weet’s. It flew over my head, allowing me a clear view of the white stripes on its wings. Meanwhile, the Leasts stood still, startled that their friend left. The next day, I found them with the Killdeer by the tributary.

The sandpipers have traveled far past New York State by now. When the Spotted will leave I have yet to really know. Considering September is more than halfway through, the final time I see it is probably when I last observed it. Meanwhile, the Killdeer are still there. They might make the lake their home.

 

 

August 8 (morning): 1 Spotted

August 14 (late afternoon): 1 Spotted, 1 Solitary

August 15 (mid-morning): Solitary

August 29 (late afternoon): 1 Spotted, 1 Solitary, 6 unknowns

August 30 (late-morning): 2 Spotted

September 1 (mid-morning): 1 Spotted

September 7 (late morning): 1 Spotted, 2 Killdeer

September 8 (mid-afternoon): 2 Killdeer

September 9 (morning): 2 Killdeer

September 9 (late-afternoon): 1 Spotted, 2 Least

September 10 (mid-morning): 2 Killdeer, 2 Least

September 13 (morning): 2 Killdeer

September 18 (mid-afternoon): 1 Spotted

September 19 (morning): 2 Killdeer