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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Peeps and Plovers in Fall Migration Starring American Golden-Plover and Baird's Sandpiper

[Lake St. Clair Metropark & Textile Rd Pond, Aug/Sep  2017]

Unlike songbirds that are well represented as summer breeders in the verdant forests of the US, most of our shorebirds nest beyond our Northern borders in the high Arctic and overwinter in South America (or the Southern US).

Thus, their passage through the continental US affords the only opportunity to engage in their study while they simultaneously enthrall and bamboozle eager observers with their cryptic plumage and confusing features.

It is a brave birding soul indeed who dares to take on the legendary identification challenges posed by our peeps and plovers. Yet it is a task we invite our readers to embrace as we review the full gamut of shorebird migration action encountered this Fall at Lake St. Clair and Textile Rd. Pond which featured species such as:

  • American Golden-Plover
  • Baird's Sandpiper
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper
  • Sanderling
  • Pectoral Sandpiper
  • Stilt Sandpiper
  • Solitary Sandpiper
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
  • Semipalmated Plover
  • Killdeer
We start with the Golden-Plover:

The American Golden-Plover was earlier lumped with Pacific Golden Plover into "Lesser Golden Plover". 

The American Golden Plover is known for its epic migrations to and from the extremities of land at each of the poles. 

To the casual observer, the Golden-plover may evoke comparison, nay, even confusion, with the Black-bellied Plover (see below):

Note that in a standing stance, the Black-bellied (above, seen at Bunche Beach, SWFL) tends to more horizontal while the Golden Plover is more upright. The bill is thicker and the wingpits are black in the Black-bellied.

In this particular specimen, seen at Lake St. Clair, there are some vestiges of the golden speckles on the back. Note that the head is also smaller and overall the plover has a more delicate look. 

The Golden Plover does not winter in the US unlike the Black-bellied. The latter are abundant at coastal venues such as Bunche Beach and Tigertail beach in SW Florida.

Baird's Sandpiper:

 At first glance, Baird's Sandpiper could be mistaken for perhaps a White-rumped Sandpiper.

However, note that plumage wears a scalloped look thanks to the white edging of the feathers.

Also note, as above, how the wings project comfortably past the tail.

Least Sandpiper:

As far as identification goes, this peep should not trouble even the most carefree and quick-to-judgement of birders.

The legs are yellow, the bill is pointed to a fine tip. And, or course, the size is small -- no bigger than a sparrow.

The individual above was spied at Lake St. Clair and shows a lot of rufous still in its plumage.  

If names were always to be construed as clues to identification, we'd all be staring at the webbing between the toes of the Semipalmated Sandpiper's feet:

Indeed, the feet are "half webbed" not "fully webbed" like a duck's for example. This condition has earned this dear peep the epithet of "Semipalmated".

Dark legs, a stouter and more rounded bill are also helpful characteristics to look for. Until 1974, wintering Western Sandpipers on the Gulf Coast were thought to be Semipalmateds!! It is now known that these peeps winter in South America and not the US.  

This peep is suffering from a declining population and is classified as "Near Threatened".

No such predicament is faced by the humble Sanderling:

This is our palest sandpiper. The individual above does show vestiges of alternate plumage as it passes through Lake St. Clair.

This sandpiper is one of our most abundant coastal shorebirds. 

Pectoral Sandpiper has an extensively streaked breast (here seen at Textile Rd Pond, Washtenaw Co.):

The legs are dull yellow and the bill as well.

This is another sandpiper that vacates US territory entirely in the Fall and Winter.

Stilt Sandpiper is seen with the Pectoral in this next frame:

The Stilt Sandpiper does seem to be aptly named -- it has a tall posture and a long, slightly drooping bill.

Solitary Sandpiper sports a striking white eyering:

Spotted Sandpiper may look superficially similar but is brighter and smaller. Both the Spotted and Stilt will overwinter in the US unlike the Solitary which sensibly heads South to the American tropics.

Lesser Yellowlegs is aptly named -- the bright yellow legs are a distinguishing characteristic:

The Greater Yellowlegs is larger, has a longer and slightly more upturned bill.

Back to the plovers -- Semipalmated Plover:

This is a tiny plover with a single, unbroken band and mask (in breeding plumage). The orange legs and brown uppersides are characteristic.

Finally, Killdeer:

This is our only double-banded plover and generally found inland, near freshwater.

This is the first shorebird to arrive here in Michigan followed by American Woodcock.

Any birder who has ventured into the world of peeps and plovers will quickly realize that there is no shame in the prospect of heinous misidentification -- it comes "with the territory".

The many nuances of bill shape, angle of droop, leg color, wing projection, etc., are, to some, landmines, but to others, learning opportunities. And, for the intrepid birder, shorebird migration is nothing but the proving grounds to a higher level of birding.

1 comment:

Bob Pelkey said...

This wonderful post reminds me of my "heinous" misidentification of Semipalmated Sandpiper as Western Sandpiper numerous times, Hemant. It was finally Constable Robert Doiron, whom I met at Bunche Beach Preserve, that schooled me on the identifying characteristics between the two species. A very informative article here to assist with other potentially challenging species.