Friday, July 13, 2012

International Shorebird Surveys: A personal account

Below is a piece concerning International Shorebird Surveys by Audubon Connecticut's IBA Program Coordinator Corrie Folsom-O'Keefe.

If you want to get better at identifying shorebirds……then do International Shorebird Surveys.   I consider myself a pretty good birder.  I do great with migratory passerines, can bird by ear, and am pretty familiar with CT’s raptors, shorebirds, waterfowl, etc.   I’m comfortable identifying the more common shorebirds, but sometimes I still question myself when it comes to telling the difference between Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, picking out a White-rumped Sandpiper amidst hundreds of peeps (Which one am I supposed to be looking at?), or identifying yellowlegs to species.   So this past spring I decide that the best way to improve my shorebirding skills would be do International Shorebird Surveys, one of the deliverable of the Long Island Sound Future Fund Grant that is funding the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds.    Since mid-April I have done 32 surveys at 6 locations (you do not need to do this many to participate, once a month is enough).   And I can say with certainty that my shorebirding skills have improved.  To start I can tell the difference between Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers! Finally! Confidently!  Many people know that Least Sandpipers have yellow legs while those of the Semipalmated Sandpiper are black.  But there are other more subtle differences.  The wing and back feathers of the Semipalmated are relatively drag compared to the Least.  Your location also can help narrow down the possibilities as Semipalmated Sandpipers are less common inland, while Least are less common on the coast.

Finally really get a feel for Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, made it possible for me to pick out sandpipers that were not either of these species.   I was at Sandy Point in West Haven in late May counting Semipalmated Sandpipers, when I noticed one that was just a little bigger than the rest.  “Don’t jump to conclusions, it is probably just the angle that is making it look bigger than the rest”, ran through my head.  But as I watched the bird, other differences became apparent.  The bill was just a little longer, and base of the bill seemed yellowish.  The colors of the feathers on the back were just a little bit richer.  I took down notes.  A little while later, I came upon a second bird similar to the one I had just observed.  This one gave a very light high pitched twittery noise.  It was time to pull out my guide and ipod and figure out what species I’d seen and heard.  Both birds it turns out were White-rumped Sandpipers!

Doing International Shorebird Surveys teaches you to look closely at birds and counting all those peeps sharpens your observation skills.  This will help you with your bird identification whether you are looking at shorebirds, gulls, warblers, sparrows, or hawks.  During my last spring ISS at Bluff Point in Groton, I noticed a couple of large terns foraging along the beach.  As one passed by me on the beach, I trained my binocular on the bird.    I expected to see a Common Tern, but found myself looking at a bird with a large amount of black on its bill.  There was some orange at the base, but not the amount I was used to seeing on Common Terns in breeding plumage.  “Do their bills change color as they transition into winter plumage or could this be a juvenile bird?” I wondered.  I kept watching the bird.  After a few passes I began to notice that the bill was thinner and longer in shape that what I would expect of a Common Tern.  This became more obvious when an adult Common Tern flew by.   I started looking for additional field marks.  The wings were lighter in color and when it called, I did not here the “Key-ahh” of a Common Tern.  My mystery bird was a Roseate Tern.

So if you would like to get better at identifying shorebirds…if you want to get better at identifying birds in general…, then I highly recommend doing International Shorebird Surveys.

Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

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