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Sunday, November 1, 2020

Sure Shorebird Delights: Stilt and Solitary Sandpiper

[Southeast Michigan. Late Summer/Early Fall 2020]

As certain as songbirds are in Spring, shorebirds are a surety in Fall. The intrepid birder lives the birding year in consonance with the graceful grammar of avian movement.  And, between August and October, a proud parade of sandpipers and plovers pass through stopover hotspots around Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. 

Accordingly, in this post, we shall profile a number of remarkable species such as:

  1. Stilt Sandpiper
  2. Lesser Yellowlegs
  3. Solitary Sandpiper
  4. Pectoral Sandpiper
  5. Semipalmated Sandpiper
  6. Sanderling
  7. Short-billed Dowitcher
  8. Black-bellied Plover
  9. Killdeer
  10. Semipalmated Plover
We start with the Stilt Sandpiper:

One could easily be forgiven for committing the misdemeanor of misidentification with the Stilt Sandpiper. An eBird checklist submitted for Lake St. Clair just before this observation reported a "Short-billed Dowitcher" where only the Stilt was present.    

errant eBirder is deserving of our fullest empathy -- what birder can claim identification infallibility in the field? The bill is indeed long and the legs a dull yellow -- both not unlike the Short-billed Dowitcher (here seen in SW Florida):

Yet, the Stilt's bill is shorter and the legs, longer; the white eyebrow is significantly more prominent. Despite this distinction, the fog of confusion did not entirely dissipate as another sandpiper came into view -- feeding in the same area as the Stilt:

Sharing many similarities with the Stilt Sandpiper, the Lesser Yellowlegs, however, has brighter yellow in the legs and a straighter bill.

A side by side comparison between the two is instructive:

Other shorebirds seen at Lake St. Clair included Solitary Sandpiper:

The prominent eyering and darker, olive, back sets this smaller apart from Lesser Yellowlegs. 

In contrast, Pectoral Sandpiper is smaller and has a heavily streaked breast:

This is a handsome sandpiper and is seen in the US only in passage unlike the next shorebird which can be found overwintering widely in the Southern US:

The Least Sandpiper is aptly named and has dull yellow legs and a pointed, slightly drooping bill.

Vying for the smallest shorebird trophy is also the Semipalmated Sandpiper:

The bill is blunt, not pointed and the legs are black; and the plumage shows less rufous.

Another pale sandpiper at Lake St. Clair shows some superficial resemblance to the Semipalmated:

Unlike the Semipalmateds which vacate US territory in winter, Sanderlings are an abundant winter visitor on our beaches.

The Sanderling is our palest sandpiper.

In addition to Lake St. Clair, Erie Marsh Preserve is another good venue for shorebirds. The assortment of species is actually richer at this venue; however, this comes at the cost of distance as the shorebirds are much farther out. 
Short-billed Dowitcher:

This individual shows a fair amount of breeding color as does this Black-bellied Plover seen at the same venue:

While Black-bellied Plover may be our largest, the Killdeer is our most familiar:

Finally, Semipalmated Plover seen at Lake St. Clair:


Shorebirds excite and enthrall in equal measure -- yet the joy of shorebird observation must be tempered with the very real risk of misidentification. However, for the diligent birder, these pitfalls are naught but badges of courage as they strive to distinguish cryptic plumages, leg coloration and bill shape and droop. Surely, a welcome challenge that presents itself every Fall.

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