Again with the shorebirds…

World traveler: a Red Knot visits an Alaska wetland during the last leg of it’s spring journey to the high arctic. All photos made with a Nikon D300 and various lenses.

In my last post I described my fascination with sandpipers and plovers. A few days ago my friend Jeff Buecking and I observed 18 species of shorebirds at Pointe Mouille State Game Area in Monroe County, Michigan. Many of the birds were incredibly close and so intent on feeding that one could study intricate plumage details with only binoculars. Most of the birds were feeding in dredgings pumped into a contained disposal unit in cell 3 of the “banana”.  These dredgings are soil removed from the Detroit River shipping channels to allow safe passage of freighters.  Sounds beautiful, eh? Well, maybe it’s not the prettiest place but the birds spruce it up a bit.  Mouillee (pronounced “mooee-yay”) is a big place and best covered on a bike.  To access cell 3 head to the south end of Roberts Rd. off of  Dixie Hwy. just north of Estral Beach. This is one of the premier birding hotspots in Michigan and has hosted a ton of rarities and will most likely be visited by some far flung vagrant before this shorebird frenzy is over. I like seeing rare birds, but I’m perfectly content watching the same birds I see every year during their brief time here.

A juvenile Semipalmated Plover snacks on a mayfly larvae on a Lake Huron beach.

Shorebirds are on hard times and have been ever since our ancestors arrived here and destroyed this Eden. The future is not promising for these birds. Warming temperatures, increasing human populations and industry are taking their toll. It sometimes amazes me that they are even still here. Some like the once abundant Eskimo Curlew are not.

I love the subtle beauty of these birds and their daring feats of power and bravery. I’ve followed Semipalmated Sandpipers all over this continent and banded hundreds of them. I marvel at their small size and incredible energy. Seventy-five percent of the world’s Semipalms head to one spot in late August: The Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada. That’s 2 million birds. It’s a place known for it’s rich marine life and the largest tides on earth, up to 50 feet. These birds will double their weight on mud shrimp, Corophium volutator, in about 2 weeks and then fly nonstop to Venezuela. You try that! Many will perish in storms or will fall prey to falcons, jaegers and gulls. It’s just one example of the mega-migrations that many shorebirds perform each spring and fall. 

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Calidris pusilla, Yukon Delta NWR, Alaska
An adult Semipalmated Sandpiper near it’s nest,  just a stone’s throw from the Bering Sea.

These birds are totally different creatures on their arctic and subarctic breeding grounds. They become “songbirds”. At my campsite on the Yukon Delta the air was filled with the sounds of displaying male Dunlin and Semipalmated Sandpipers. There are no trees, shrubs or rocks in the areas where these birds nest. So, they hover on the usually strong wind as they trill and chatter away. Click here for shorebird songs.

This male Semipalmated Sandpiper found a relatively high perch to perform his courtship song from a pair of whale ribs along the Bering coast. Why they were set there remains a mystery.

Shorebirds almost always lay 4 huge eggs. They are arranged so that the narrow ends all point to the center of the nest. The nest and eggs are beautifully camouflaged works of art. In most species the males and females share incubation duty. In Semipalms this is only about 20 days. Shorebird chicks are precocial, like waterfowl, and are up and about soon after they dry. They can feed themselves on abundant invertebrates and need just a little guidance and protection from their parents. Soon after the chicks hatch, mom departs and dad is in charge briefly. Youngsters can fly in about 16 days and are soon left to fend for themselves.

Semipalmated Sandpiper nest, Calidris pusilla, Yukon Delta NWR, Alaska
Grasses and willow leaves frame the exquisite eggs of a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Semipalm chicks nest
Hatching day! The first 2 chicks stand over their newly hatched siblings.

A juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper feeds in questionable dredgings from the Detroit River.

For years, I’ve been blabbing about the seemingly impossible migrations of these birds to anyone that might listen. It’s friggin incredible, but here’s another little factoid to push it over the top. In most species the adults are long gone before their offspring wing their way south with no guidance. How do they do it? Birds navigate by the stars, the earth’s electromagnetic field, ultraviolet light and who knows what else?

We threaten these birds with our actions every day. Market hunting took it’s toll in the 1800’s. Oil drilling, commercial fishing, agriculture, coastal development, sewage, biofuel production and wind energy will continue to diminish the once sky-darkening numbers of North American shorebirds.  As great as humans’ accomplishments are, we’re no physical match for a tiny long-winged bundle of energy that weighs only 1 ounce and flies fast into the wind. We should be doing all we can to ensure that they’re with us for a long time.


~ by David Stimac on August 22, 2013.

8 Responses to “Again with the shorebirds…”

  1. Amazing photographs and commentary….as usual!

  2. I agree, the commentary is as good as the photos.

    David, you continue to inspire me to lay on the ground, tread through the weeds, and climb into trees. I have not gotten wet, dirty and bug-bitten in many years. Thank you! 🙂

  3. David, this article and photos are a gift. Period. The whale rib and nest photos are burned in my brain– the beauty of it all. Your writings– need to be compiled into a book.

  4. I never get tired of seeing your work David! “Love it”…….

  5. Thanks a ton for your comments and taking the time to read my ramblings everyone!

  6. Another awesome post… thanks for sharing…

  7. Wonderful post – beautiful images!

  8. Anything we can do to reduce pollution and increase wildlife habitat will help these birds.
    Thanks for all this information.

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