Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Friday, August 7, 2020

That Bird's Got Character: Least Sandpiper and Friends have arrived!

Least sandpiper with neck fully extended.


 I birded the banks of the Susquehanna in Athens by kayak on Wednesday afternoon. It's incredible what difference a change in perspective can offer. A phenomenon that many kayakers experience is that much of the wildlife along these banks allow for closer approach if you're floating by, as opposed to walking along the shore.

I think the thing that captivates me about many of our wild neighbors is that unquantifiable variable known as 'character.' 'Character' may be defined in this context as the qualities, characteristics, and attributes distinctive to an individual. The term "individual" may be assigned on a number of levels; individual bird, individual species, individual habitat type, etc.

With regard to our wild neighbors, I tend to make an assessment of character by the ways that unique species and individuals interact with their environment and by the ways they respond to pressures and opportunities of their environment.

Yes, it's character that captivates my attention the most, and most of the birds along the banks of the Susquehanna have plenty of it!

I enjoyed watching a greater yellowlegs and a couple of least sandpipers forage among river cobbles with killdeer. A Caspian tern and ring-billed gull were also present. The yellowlegs and sandpipers were a visit from the far north or the far south, depending on the time of year, your global perspective, and your prior experience with these incredible migrants that spend their Summer in the north-Canadian tundra and their winters as far south as Chile and Argentina! Our world's changing climate is a real threat to these and other shorebirds since their breeding grounds is about as far north as it gets. Should ocean levels rise and temperatures soar, there's no replacement habitat that can be made farther north than they already go.

The least sandpiper is the smallest of all the shorebirds in the world, and while, from my perspective it is not the shorebird with the most character, it is representative of a group that possesses A LOT of character!

Picking for arthropods in mud and sand and in-between river cobbles, quick sprinting with lots of start-stopping in wide open spaces mostly void of trees adjacent to water bodies describes the majority of shorebirds in a general sense. Every species and every individual is worth closer observation though; as there are many unique character traits and interesting peculiarities that welcome that sense of wonder that inspires many of us to watch birds.

I just stated that shorebirds as a group tend to shy away from forested areas, but the greater yellowlegs has an affinity for a certain type of forest; boreal spruce bog to be specific.

A closely related species that I observed at the Lockhart Street Bridge on Friday (8/7), the lesser yellowlegs, also has a preference for the wet edges of spruce bogs; and while, in typical fashion the greater yellowlegs nests on the ground, the lesser yellowlegs is the only North American shorebird known to nest among the branches of trees, tending to make use of abandoned nests left by songbirds like the American robin.

You've met the smallest shorebird in the world, two that like the wet forested edge of spruce bogs, and one that nests in trees. If you appreciate the character of our wild neighbors like I do, then every one of these shorebirds that will be passing through our rivers, lakes, and wet fields in the US as they make their way from their breeding grounds in the far north to their wintering grounds in South America is worth a closer look. As you might have guessed, the annual Fall shorebird migration is underway, and wave upon wave of them will continue to pass through well into October.


Greater yellowlegs in flight.

Greater yellowlegs: Note bill pale at base, long, and slightly upturned. Also brown streaking from face to belly and even beyond legs.

This is a photo I took in Delaware in 2017. I'm sharing it here to show the differences between greater and lesser yellowlegs: Note straight dark bill of lesser yellowlegs (left), smaller than that of greater yellowlegs (right), and a little more white on the face with breast streaking not reaching belly.
Least sandpipers foraging in close proximity to each other.

Least sandpiper: Note short, pointed, slightly downcurved bill. Legs yellow or greenish but not a good field mark since they're often covered with mud!

Killdeer: A species of shorebird that breeds throughout the US into southern Canada. Not all shorebirds breed in the far north.

Spotted sandpiper: Another shorebird species that breeds throughout the US into central Canada.

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