Shorebirds Sans Shore
(Header image: Buff-breasted Sandpiper)
Today’s title may seem like an oxymoron, but species defined as shorebirds spend a lot of time at places other than the shore, such as mud flats, marshes, agricultural fields and even forests. During migration, shorebirds stop at historically food-rich locations to refuel and rest on their annual trek. Even commercial sod farms.
Green. Horizon to horizon.
Small tractors scuttled around the fields and large flatbed trucks trundled along the narrow dirt road toward the outbuildings where they would be loaded with freshly cut sod. The green patches of lawn will then be hauled to newly built homes and businesses where they will be tossed onto recently scraped dirt. Copious amounts of water and fertilizer will be administered until the grass takes root. Homeowners and landscape companies will then spend hundreds of hours per year with mowers, trimmers, rakes, more fertilizer and more water in an attempt to keep the stuff green.
Meanwhile, back at the sod farm.
As vast swaths of green are cut and removed in preparation for the big trucks, all that dirt which is exposed turns to mud when it rains or when the fields are irrigated. The combination of mud and newly sprouting grass is a magnet for a diverse population of insects. Large numbers of birds know this. More than a few birders have also discovered this phenomenon.
Throughout the year, this commercial sod farm hosts from a few to several hundred shorebirds, with the largest concentrations occurring during spring and fall migration. A typical birding day a few weeks ago, for example, produced around 250 Least Sandpiper, 50 Killdeer, a dozen Pectoral Sandpiper, a few Semipalmated and Western Sandpiper, several Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, a Spotted and Solitary Sandpiper and a couple of Wilson’s Snipe.
Occasionally, an uncommon species makes an appearance. Our timing was good recently.
Just after sunrise, we cruised slowly along the paved county road adjacent to the sod farm. Not much to see. We turned onto the dirt road which leads to the farm’s operation center. Fortunately, this portion of the road is public.
Birds! Looking like ants at a picnic, waves of small sandpipers moved across the dew-covered grass snapping up insect morsels as they marched and hopped along. Most of what we could see were Least Sandpipers with a few of their larger look-alike cousins, Pectoral Sandpipers. Gini-with-the-sharp-eyes exclaimed: “That’s different!”
It sure was! Larger than the Least, not as round as the Pectoral, tawny-colored, a roundish head, an upright foraging posture. Buff-breasted Sandpiper! And there was a second one!
In years past, we have glimpsed this uncommon migrant at extreme distances through the spotting scope. Now, here were two feeding less than 50 yards from our “hide” (the car)! We enjoyed the next half-hour watching the pair feed along with several dozen other sandpipers. I caught a movement on the other side of the road and discovered a Spotted Sandpiper, still bearing the spots of its breeding plumage.
As our rare visitors flew to another part of the field, we moved down the road and found a few large puddles caused by recent rains. Here we watched Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, a Stilt Sandpiper, Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe, Semipalmated Plover and more Lesser and Pectoral Sandpipers feeding voraciously. A pair of Mottled Ducks appeared in some tall grass.
The Buff-breasted Sandpiper pair joined the group above and we couldn’t have asked for a better day at the sod farm! These amazing birds nest in the Arctic tundra and fly to the pampas of South America for the winter. An incredible journey! It has been estimated they used to number in the millions. Uncontrolled hunting in the 19th century and loss of feeding habitat along migration routes in modern times has reduced their population to probably less than 50,000. We feel very privileged to have spent a little time with them.
A portion of a flock of Lesser and Pectoral Sandpipers moving from one feeding location to another.
A rare treat, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper.
By far the most common shorebird in our area is the Least Sandpiper. Only 5-6 inches (12-15 cm) long, their “crouched” feeding posture and light-colored legs help separate them from Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers.
Pretty soon, this Spotted Sandpiper will be plain gray/brown above and plain white below.
We were fortunate to have both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs feeding in the same area so identification was simplified. It can be difficult to judge size if the birds are alone and the best way to determine which is which is by their calls. Greater is 11-13 inches (29-33 cm) long and the Lesser is about 9-10 inches (23-27 cm) in length.
A Stilt Sandpiper is not a rare bird but is not very common in our area, even during migration. Here it is seen (on the right) with a Lesser Yellowlegs.
Pectoral Sandpipers look like large versions of the Least Sandpiper.
Although the quality of this photograph is not great, it shows the size difference between Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper and a Killdeer.
With a bill truly made for deep probing, the Wilson’s Snipe’s plumage can make finding them in a field of brown grass a real challenge.
Looking much different than the sandpipers, we found about a dozen Semipalmated Plover during the morning.
With an abundance of food available, shorebirds were not the only guests at the sod farm. Dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds arrived to enjoy brunch.
A juvenile European Starling was part of a larger group which also found the fields to be an acceptable foraging location.
Trying to remain hidden in a section of taller grass with standing water, a pair of Mottled Ducks added to the variety of our day.
It seemed almost like cheating to be comfortably seated in the car and being able to observe so much activity and diversity all around us. Almost. We can’t wait to do it again!
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!