Nantucket’s Shore Birds -July 2014

by: Ginger Andrews

photography by: E. Vernon Laux

In July, with coastal waters finally warming, we think of summer as just getting started. But in the Arctic the midnight sun has already begun to set earlier, returning the first brief nights to the far north and signaling nesting birds that it is time to be on the move. Many shorebirds take advantage of the brief intense northern summer to raise their young in the shortest possible time with the largest possible concentration of available food. And then, lest winter catch them, they head for more temperate lands.

“Shorebird” is a term given to an assortment of waders and sandpipers, some familiar, others more obscure, and not all found on beaches. Piping Plovers, notorious for still being highly endangered, are only one of about 20 species we see regularly on Nantucket. And depending on weather, exotic species from other continents may blow in unexpectedly.

Shorebirds are a sign of a healthy beach. Despite its well-swept appearance, a natural beach is a whole ecosystem in itself, one on which shorebirds depend. Zones within the beach hold millions of tiny animals. Different birds have different feeding strategies, depending on which critters they find delicious. Our beaches and tidal flats are a boon both for birds and for people who like to look at them.

Sometimes new birders struggling with field marks despair over the confusing plumages of “peeps.” At first glance they all seem grayish-brownish above and whitish below, and the first response might be to just give up. This is a mistake, as shorebirds have the advantage of holding more or less still, giving a good opportunity to study them. They challenge us to be better observers – to take size, shape, behavior and habitat into account. Ultimately, understanding the lives of birds is equally or perhaps even more interesting than simply putting a name to them.

For some shorebirds, Nantucket is their northern destination. American Oystercatchers, Piping Plovers, Killdeer and Willets all breed here. Here they hatch, are tended by parents, shed their down for feathers and learn to fend for themselves. They arrive early and remain into the fall, making a backdrop for the changing patterns of other migrants.

Although they are common now, ornithologists of a century ago would be astounded to see Oystercatchers and Willets happily going about their ways. Once nearly hunted to extinction, some of the very sportsmen who most enjoyed shooting them realized that they were in danger and got laws passed to protect them. Although recovery took decades – Oystercatchers were not seen here until the 1970s – they have bounced back and returned to some of their former haunts. Anyone who doubts humans’ ability to diagnose, plan and implement a solution to an ecological problem should be encouraged by this example.

With migrants we get more of a snapshot of their lives. Here they pause to rest and eat, gaining the fat that fuels their long flight. While some may winter here, others head for the southern coast of the United States or the Bahamas. Still others go as far south as the tip of South America: Red Knots fly a round-trip of about 18,000 miles every year.

One of the first to migrate is the Spotted Sandpiper, appearing as early as the end of June. Although many have already shed their spots, their tail-bobbing walk as they sashay along pond or barrier beach shorelines is distinctive. They reverse the notion of the foot-loose, care-free male. The females lay their eggs and leave while males incubate and feed the offspring.

Another early return is the Black-bellied Plover. Preferring exposed tidal flats, they forage by sight with a little run-stop, run-stop-peck style of feeding. Yellowlegs wade in the shallows, sweeping their bills back and forth. Shortbilled Dowitchers, on the other hand, look like plump little sewing machines as they stitch at the water’s edge. Ruddy Turnstones live up to their name, as they amble like sturdy beachcombers along the shore, turning over rocks for the goodies that lie beneath.

In mid-July Whimbrel arrive. One of our larger shorebirds, often found in salt marshes, a flock of 30 can disappear without a trace until they fly. Their long, down-curved bills are just the shape of fiddler-crab burrows, a favorite food. Also arriving mid-month is the Solitary Sandpiper, a solo forager around fresh-water ponds in the moors. Most shorebirds make scrapes on the ground, but the Solitary Sandpiper is notable for reusing old nests of other birds in trees in the boreal forest.

At the end of the month, Sanderlings are seen again. They might be called everyone’s favorite shorebird. They run along the swash on ocean beaches as if they were part of the wave itself, and fly with a flash of white like sunlight on water.
August brings more exciting species. American GoldenPlover, Buff-breasted, Pectoral and White-rumped Sandpipers, Red Knots – they of the very long distances – Hudsonian and Marbled Godwits can all be seen here.

Migrating birds ride the winds, but storms can wreak unpredictable havoc, blowing birds up, down or sideways.

Over the years a good number of exotics have found themselves on Nantucket. One of the most unusual was a Western Reef Heron. An African species never before seen in North America, it blew in after an April storm and spent the summer of 1983 on the marsh at the University of Massachusetts field station. A Gray-tailed Tattler, native to Siberia, was seen during the 2012 Nantucket Birding Festival. Two Northern Lapwings, natives of Europe which winter in Africa, spent the winter of 2012-13 in farm fields here. Due to persistent east winds that combined to make a superstorm out of Hurricane Sandy, a whole flock was apparently scattered across the northern half of our continent. Many disappeared, but our pair survived to be joined by a third, and took off again in April, none the worse for wear. What’s not to love about that? ///

Ginger Andrews writes the “Island Bird Sightings” column for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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