As I mentioned in my last post, I went down to Sandusky, Ohio, this weekend for a “Shorebirding for Beginners” outing organized by the Birding Ohio group on Facebook. This was part of my intensive effort to conquer identification of this challenging group of birds. We were to gather at 8:30 at a McDonald’s a few blocks away from Pipe Creek Wildlife Area before car-pooling in. My excitement was already high from the moment my eyes opened that morning, but when I pulled into the parking lot and saw so many birders already birding from the McD’s parking lot, I could hardly restrain myself from running over and hugging them. I got that feeling I’ve come to associate with all birding events — I knew I was with my people. People wearing field vests and Tilley hats, with spotting scopes and binoculars, making corny bird jokes…yep, I thought, I DO fit in with these people. Even though I had only met a couple of these particular people in person before, I found it easy to talk with them as we all pointed out birds to each other. (Birding trivia: Birders are always birding…even if they tell you otherwise.) Always the generous teacher, Kenn Kaufman was making sure everyone got a chance to see the Snowy Egret that was across the road, as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive.
Before I go further, I should say that this gathering was initiated by the founder of Birding Ohio, Jeff Loughman. Jeff had rounded up a group of experts to serve as leaders during the trip: Kim and Kenn Kaufman, Mark Shieldcastle, Ben Warner, and Greg Miller. In case you aren’t aware of what big birding rock stars are in that list, I tell you more about them at the end of this post. Kim Kaufman (Director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor, Ohio) served as overall group leader and birder herder extraordinaire.
Anyway, finally it was time to load into our vehicles, but first Kim got us all together for the big group picture you see above. There were about 60 people there that morning, from all parts of Ohio (and at least one from Michigan — me!). Talk about a nice flock of birders….
After we got out on the dike, the leaders spread out and set up their scopes at various spots. The idea was that we could wander between the stations and learn about whatever birds each group was watching. It was a great plan and it worked out well. Many of us had also brought our own scopes, so there were plenty of viewing opportunities to go around. I should explain for the non-birders that shorebird-watching usually requires a spotting scope because the birds are further away than most binoculars can reach. This is another reason it’s hard to learn to identify shorebirds: They’re often distant birds standing in or near water that reflects sunlight just to make it even harder. We had a brand-new, not-even-on-the-market-yet Swarovski scope to try out — I almost wish I’d never looked through that amazing piece of optical equipment, because now I really hate my own scope. (And I’ve heard that those scopes cost as much as some people’s cars, so I’m not likely to buy one…but man, was it nice!) But we were lucky that some of the birds came within binocular range during the day too, allowing us to follow them around a bit easier as they waded in the mud or shallow water.
I’ve spent many hours studying shorebirds in my various field guides, but there’s only so much to be learned with your face in a book. Seeing them in their habitat with someone who can tell you exactly what you’re looking at is really helpful. And an important tool for identifying them is learning their different foraging styles, so I spent some time just watching individual birds after I knew which species they belonged to.
One of the first birds Kenn pointed out was a Short-billed Dowitcher, a bird that pokes its long bill straight up and down in the mud, sort of like a sewing machine needle. I studied its head and body shapes and tried to implant them in my brain. You probably wonder why it’s called “Short-billed” when it has a long bill. I think it’s “short” in relation to the bill of the Long-billed Dowitcher. (Birding trivia: Bird names are sometimes confusing.)
Soon after that we got good views of some Lesser Yellowlegs. And Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Stilt Sandpipers, and Willets, and Least Sandpipers….and much more. What made this such a valuable learning experience, aside from the expert leaders we had, was that all these species of birds were intermingled, so we could see their relative sizes. Imagine seeing a single bird 50 yards out in the water and trying to judge how big it is. Then imagine seeing four birds of different sizes walking around beside each other, and you’ll realize that you can immediately narrow down your potential ID’s just based on relative sizes. Even with my limited experience, I knew immediately when I saw a couple of Willets — even at 75 yards away — that they were not sandpipers. They looked positively gigantic after watching the smaller birds.
I was thrilled to see some Red-necked Phalaropes — they sit on the water and spin in circles as they feed. So cute. I’ll have no problem picking them out of a crowd if they’re doing that, that’s for sure! And the two Wilson’s Snipe on the far shore, all hunkered down beside a log trying to be invisible, despite those long pointy protuberances on their faces. There are more subtle distinctions to be made among many of the other shorebirds, but I’ve put a few more pieces of that big puzzle together now, and I’m starting to feel a little less overwhelmed by this challenging group.
Another fun part of the day was sharing everyone else’s excitement; since we had birders of many experience levels in the group, there were lots of people getting pumped up after seeing life birds. (A “life bird” or “lifer” is a bird you’re seeing for the first time in your life.) One person discovered a Buff-breasted Sandpiper and could not restrain her joy. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Deb N.) Her smile was ear to ear. I don’t think that was a lifer for her, but she sure did love that bird! What about me, you ask? I had seven life birds for the day, bringing my life list up to 157 species: Cattle Egret, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, and Red-necked Phalarope. And each and every one of them was a beautiful bird.
I wish I had some more bird pictures to share with you, but I had so much gear to carry on that very hot day (over 90F by noon) that I decided not to take my 400mm bird lens. The camera is often a distraction from really studying the birds anyway, and I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to learn from the experts on this trip. I did take some pics of my fellow birders, but most of those weren’t very good either (as you can see in Greg’s picture, above).
Kim ended our gathering with a few closing remarks, reminding us all to thank the ODNR’s Division of Wildlife for keeping Pipe Creek open for us this weekend instead of closing it in preparation for hunting season. Many of us have already posted thank you notes on their Facebook page, and I hope more will do so in the coming days. Through my participation in events like this, I’ve come to understand the necessity of the unlikely alliance between hunters and birders to help preserve wetland habitats. I now make sure to buy a Federal Duck Stamp each year, and I just found out that there’s a Michigan license plate that supports wildlife habitat too…hmm, might be time to update our plates.
This was a very fulfilling day and I’m so glad I got to go on this trip!
Ok, as I said at the beginning, here’s a bit more about the experts who served as leaders of this excursion:
Kim Kaufman is the Executive Director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor, Ohio. She’s the amazing force behind the Biggest Week in American Birding. (I’ve written about the Biggest Week here many times.) Not only is she extremely good at her job, but she’s one of the warmest and sweetest people I’ve ever known (even when I only knew her online I could tell that). And her husband, Kenn Kaufman, is the world-renowned birding expert and author of numerous books, including field guides on birds, insects, mammals and butterflies. I’ve had the pleasure of being taught by Kenn several times over the past two years, and in my opinion, he’s a born teacher. And a very humble star.
Greg Miller is best known for his Big Year in 1998, which was documented in the book The Big Year, by Mark Obmascik. The book was then used as the basis for the movie of the same name, in which Jack Black played the role inspired by Greg Miller. I had a few minutes to talk with Greg at the beginning of our excursion, and found him to be very down-to-earth and friendly.
Mark Shieldcastle is the extremely knowledgeable Research Director for BSBO. Mark led our nighttime Woodcock Walk during the Biggest Week this year and I enjoyed it a great deal (although the Woodcock didn’t begin his mating dance until it was too dark to see it that night). Ben Warner is the only leader I was unable to spend time with on this trip, but I heard many compliments about him from others. Next time, Ben!