With the seemingly unending heat finally coming to an end, it’s time to look out for birds migrating south again.
I’m going to go over shorebirds, which are usually our earliest southbound birds. The drought has exposed the shorelines of lakes and ponds throughout the area. Open mudflats are great habitat for migrating shorebirds that like to feed in this habitat. It is often hard to see the tiny sandpipers far out on heat-distorted mudflats, but it’s worth a try.
Some bigger species are easily identifiable. American Avocets are big, distinctive sandpipers with a rusty orange, black and white body. The long neck and head are the same pale rust color as on the body. Their long, thin beaks are bent upward!
Another skinny shorebird is the Black-necked Stilt. It is black-and-white patterned with a thin beak, but unlike the avocet, the stilt’s beak is straight. They also have very long pink or red legs, hence the name stilt.
Dowitchers and Wilson’s Snipe (shown in older books as the Common Snipe) are somewhat smaller than stilts and avocets but have more typical patterning of streaks and brown coloration. There are two species of dowitcher, called Long-billed and Short-billed, but they are extremely similar despite the implied difference in their names. All three species have very long, straight bills, which they insert into the mud to search for food. Dowitchers often forage in a sewing-machine-like fashion, while snipe forage more deliberately.
Dowitchers in breeding plumage have rich, reddish-brown colors on their plumage. In winter plumage, they are a duller gray-brown with a pale “eyebrow.” Snipe (which are real, by the way, just very hard to see) have a boldly striped back and a striped, elongated face leading into the long beak. They also have a rufous tail that is most easily visible in flight. Snipe also spend the winter here.
Another brown- and gray-streaked shorebird is the Greater Yellowlegs. Like the snipe, we can see them here both in migration and winter. It has long, yellow legs and a beak that is shorter than the dowitchers’ or snipe’s beak, but still longer than its head. It has a loud, ringing call of “klee klee klee,” often given when flushed from the shore. The Lesser Yellowlegs is similar in plumage but it is slightly smaller and has a proportionately shorter bill that is only a little longer than its head. Its call is also quieter and usually is one or two notes instead of three or more.
The Pectoral Sandpiper is somewhat like a yellowlegs in its brownish streaked plumage and yellow legs, but it is stockier and smaller than either species. Its breast streaking ends sharply at the edge of its white belly, instead of grading into it as in the yellowlegs. I have seen these in flooded grassy ponds and fields, so checking along weedy areas in mudflats might be your best bet of seeing them.
Finally, we get to the smallest of our sandpipers – the “peeps.” Our common peeps are White-rumped Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper. All occur during migration and the Least Sandpiper is also common during the winter. It is distinguishable from the other peeps by its yellow legs. Sometimes they get a bit muddy, but the color is there. The other species are distinguishable by various features of wing length, streaking pattern on the back and beak shape.
Be careful in this heat as you look for our fall migrant shorebirds. Keep your eyes peeled at the lakes and ponds for these charming, yet camouflaged birds, as they blend into the mudflats. You never know what you will find!
The next monthly field trip on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands is Wednesday, Oct. 5. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For more information, contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service District Office, (940) 627-5475.