Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Shorebirds Part 1

As promised, I'm spending the winter scanning slides. I want to dedicate this post to Fritz Griffith who worked in the 1960's and 70's at the Hebron Fish Hatchery in Licking County Ohio. Shorebirds love to forage in shallow muddy areas. Fritz would see to it that water levels at the hatchery were raised and lowered during the spring and fall, making Hebron of the the hot birding spots in Ohio.

Upon his passing, his widow donated his shorebird collection to the college. I wish to share it with you at this time. 90% of the slides are his. Many were taken at Hebron, and some in Florida. The photos of mine were also shot in Florida and Ohio. This is not an artistic display, but a means to help in identification, as most shorebirds are not in breeding colors when they pass through. Most of the narration is mine, but I also have a taped program from Fritz, so I stuck a few of his comments in as well.

The most common shorebird in our area is the Killdeer. The two black neck rings, and the red eye ring are the best methods of identification. A member of the Plover group, it is one of the few species that stays here to nest.
Killdeers will nest anywhere from rooftops to gravel driveways. The broken wing act they use when danger approaches their nest is a show second to none.

Smaller and more chunky than a killdeer is the Semi-palmated Plover. It has only one ring around the neck, and the tiny bill is two-toned. In winter plumage there is less white in the face and the bill is often a solid color.

Piping Plovers in winter plumage have little to no distinguishing marks. In breeding plumage they have a thin ring around the neck which may be complete or broken. They also have a two-toned bill. Where Killdeers and Semi-palmated plovers have rich brown backs, Piping plovers are very light gray on the back.
Piping Plovers are an endangered species. I had the opportunity to observe a nesting pair in Michigan. Three chicks hatched at the same time and the parents attended to them along the beach shore. The female returned to incubate this single egg for two more days. A week later it was obvious when observing the young which of the four hatched last. A simple depression in the ground is typical of shorebird nests. The eggs are fat at one end and skinny at the other. This prevents them from rolling.

Snowy Plovers are the smallest in this group. They are rare in Ohio. In breeding plumage it is similar to the Piping Plover. The Snowy will have a dark spot behind the eye, and the neck ring will be incomplete. The legs are darker than the Piping, and the bill will remain black.

With just a quick glance you may say this looks like another Semi-palmated Plover. This is Wilson's Plover, and everything about this bird is bigger. The size is greater than semi, the eye patch and neck ring are broader, but the important feature is the longer thick black bill. Compare the bill to the Semi-palmated in the far right of the picture. This is an uncommon species in Ohio.

This is an American Golden Plover changing into breeding plumage. The dark cap on top of the head is distinct. The back will turn to a solid black mixed with gold feathers. Under the wings is a large black patch extending past the legs. Soon the entire rump will turn back.
As fall sets in the solid black areas disappear. At this stage you can still see the flecks of gold on the wings.
In winter plumage the entire bird may appear brown. Depending on the lighting, the gold may or may not be visible.
Shorebirds can be very wary and hard to approach. Unless you're using a telephoto lens or spotting scope, this is the usual view with binoculars. Even from a distance the black undersides and yellow back are diagnostic.

The Black-bellied Plover is similar to the Golden Plover, but lacks the yellow spots. The back is mottled in black and white. The crown may be slightly gray, but lacks the black top. Beneath the wings and throughout the rump it remains white. The black underside stops at the legs.
Though it keeps the mottled back, in winter the solid black patches disappear. In the old days when shorebirds were still hunted, the black protruding eye contributed to the nickname "beetle-eye".

The rusty back, orange legs, and black bib make the Rudy Turnstone easy to identify. Because of the short neck and legs, the bird appears to stay hunkered down when foraging.
In winter the solid black bib fades and may look more like a circle or medallion around the neck. The red-orange legs should still aid in identification.

Sandpipers, or the "peeps", have slightly longer bills than Plovers. No bigger than sparrow size, this is our smallest species, the Least Sandpiper. They are brown backed with a white belly. The color on the neck may vary from a patchwork brown to just a few streaks. When comparing to other small sandpipers, look for the yellow-green legs.  These are common along Lake Erie.

Looking nearly identical to the Least is the Semi-palmated Sandpiper. They are a quarter inch larger and have a little thicker bill. There that was easy wasn't it? Actually the legs of Semipalmated Sandpipers are black not greenish. That's the easiest way to tell them apart. When I was with the Division of Wildlife back in '77, the Huron and Sandusky rivers were being dredged. The mud was dumped into a large enclosure at the end of the Huron Pier. My route took me here daily, and I would observe both these species 500 at a time. Now that's the way to learn shorebirds!

Much more uncommon in Ohio, but looking like the previous two, is the Western Sandpiper. While having the same general markings on the back, this bird is larger, and has a much longer bill. It is said that the tip of the bill has a slight droop. This is not really observable in this picture. The scapular feathers (at the top of the wings) usually show rusty orange-brown or rufous markings. In flight this bird tends to keep the bill pointing down rather than out.

Among the small peeps, the Sanderling is very easy to recognize. The black shoulders, bill, and legs contrast with the white belly and gray back. Primarily beach shoreline feeders, it is fun to watch them move like Roadrunners while avoiding the oncoming waves. In breeding plumage the head turns a rusty color.

The silhouette of these birds, round and chunky, with a very long bill, tells us Dowitchers. These happen to be Short-billed Dowitchers, but telling them apart from Long-billed Dowitchers is very difficult.
The plumage of both species looks nearly identical. The tail feathers of the Long-billed are heavily barred in black. On the Short-billed pictured here (two males & a female), the tails feathers are less thickly barred and look more like zebra stripes. Of course if the bird isn't flying, this character doesn't help.
You would think with a name like Long-billed Dowitcher, that would be enough to look for. Unfortunately the bills aren't that different in size unless you are looking at a female. In a flock where both occur, look for the slightly larger or taller birds, then compare the bills with others. Once again, not always reliable.
The Dowitchers in winter plumage are virtually identical at that time of year. Short-bills have a three note call, Long-bills have a single note. If they remain silent, once again you're out of luck.
Which one?? Here's a shot I took and never labeled. My guess is Short-billed. The rump, belly, and lower chest are all white. In Long-billed Dowitchers during this season the underparts should be solid reddish-orange. Once again, it's a guess.

These robin sized, short necked birds were once referred to as red-backed sandpipers. This is the Dunlin. Easily recognized by the bright rusty back and a large black belly patch.
In winter, Dunlins lose the black and orange and turn gray-brown like most other winter shorebirds, go figure.
This is an early spring migrant, not yet molted into full breeding plumage. The black belly patch is noticeable, but also important on Dunlins any time of the year is the slightly curved-down look at the tip of the bill.

Sporting mustard colored legs, the Pectoral Sandpiper is not at all uncommon in Ohio. Having the typical brown feathered back, your attention should turn to the streaked or mottled neck and upper chest. This is one of the few species that frequents S.E. Ohio.
This is a fall colored bird. The plumage changes very little between the seasons on this species. The streaking comes down and stops abruptly at the top of the wings where the pectoral muscles are located, hence the name.

Gray-backed birds with medium length bills and long legs are probably either Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs. These two do look alike, but are far easier to separate than the dowitchers.
Pictured here is an early arriving Greater Yellowlegs, and a pair more typical of breeding plumage. Some would say the joint in the legs is thicker than that of the Lesser, and that the upper part of the leg is much shorter than the lower, giving them the appearance of standing on stilts. That's all in the eye of the beholder. For me, the fact that the bill is longer and slightly thicker, plus the Greater Yellowlegs stands at 14 inches tall, are the most reliable characters.

The Lesser Yellowlegs has a shorter, thinner bill. The bird stands at 10 inches. I found repeated exposure to these species is the best way to tell them apart, even when they don't occur together.
Much rarer in Ohio is the Stilt Sandpiper.The legs on this will be greenish. The upper photo shows thick black barring on the chest and belly. These marks extend well beyond the legs. In the second and third photo, look for the orange patch behind the eye. At this point, you may want to pass off shorebirds as all look-alikes. But it's small key features like this that will allow you to increase your  species list when birding or studying nature.

Named after the sound of their call, the Willet is common along the Atlantic coast, not so in Ohio. These are in winter plumage, though breeding color changes little. A few streaks on the chest is the only difference. This is another large, long-legged shorebird. When photographing birds, you don't want them to fly. But the key identification mark is a large white stripe across the wings when they take off. They are easy to approach, and usually only fly a short distance. In sneaking up and hoping it will take flight for a good shot, I ask myself, willet or won't it.

Back to a short legged chunky species. This is a Knot or Red Knot. Look for a mottled black back, a slight eye stripe, and a red-orange underside. Any other color combination, and it's probably "not" this. These are spring birds whose bellies have changed, and the reddish color will appear up on the neck and face come summer. When these photos were taken, about 40 years ago, Knots had not been spotted around the Licking County area since 1885. Once again, thanks to the hatchery.
These Knots were taken along Lake Erie. The first in early fall, the second at a later date. You can see the red coloring beginning to fade, and once again it leads to our favorite color, winter shorebird gray.