Shorebird Magic

From Rick Mellon

Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Who wouldn’t love to find one? And in breeding plumage? Truth be known, your odds of finding one in breeding plumage are much higher than winter plumage. There are three ways to pick a Spoon-billed out of a flock of peeps: by the wacky shaped bill which gives the bird its name, by the shadow of the bill on the bird’s chest and by the bright rufous head, neck, and back during the breeding season.

The bill shape is very difficult to see from the side, and only a little easier from the front, as the peeps scurry around. By far, the easiest way to locate one is to look for the rufous upperparts during the breeding season and before the juveniles begin to migrate starting in early July, with the last half of July near the best time.

A friend named Barry Sauppe and I went to our first DVOC meeting together in 1965. Barry moved west to California and then British Columbia, where in late July 1979, he discovered a breeding plumage Spoon-billed Sandpiper at a local sewage treatment plant and large intertidal mudflat. Aside from the vicarious thrill of a friend finding a super-mega rarity in North America (the global population of this Asian peep is estimated at about 200 individuals), the one thing that was seared into my avian-loving mind was the fact that Barry initially located the bird at about 75 yards by picking out its bright rufous head among thousands of peeps, yet the bird had already lost significant color when he last saw it four days later!

Among Eurasian shorebirds, red is the magic color and July is the magic time. Barry also had brightly colored adult Rufous-necked and Little Stints in the same time period. A week later, with their color rapidly fading, all three of these species would be difficult to find in flocks of thousands of peeps. Plus there are about ten other Eurasian visitors (or potential visitors) that have significant seasonal red or more permanent brighter red throughout the year, which will help in finding rare species. Especially when coordinated with the calendar to catch those breeding season plumages. One final note from Barry: oddball birds are often shunned from the flock. So if one bird keeps getting chased out of the flock, check it twice. You might get lucky. Especially if you move your next shorebird trip up from August into July. You might be the first to discover a Spoon-billed Sandpiper on the east coast.

Rick Mellon
Mellon Biological Services, LLC