.......and Reflections

Monday, August 8, 2011

Shorebird Migration Marches On Through Early August

Shorebirds begin migrating through Northern Ohio beginning about July first. In fact there were significant Yellowlegs and other species moving at Lorain impoundment in the last week of June. These shorebirds and most neotropical migrants are mostly on the move in spring and fall but home is in the tropics or sub-tropics.
Their true home is where they winter. They travel to North America for one purpose: to raise a family and get back to where they call home.

Lorain impoundment is a small but important wetland that is attractive to shorebirds on the first leg of a very long and sometimes dangerous fall journey home. This small area is right on Lake Erie shores and provides a land and water feature shorebirds need for a usually brief, but important stopping place with cover and food.

By the time these adult and juvenile birds get to the impoundment they are in good physical condition and prepared to move south in monumental strides. So they are similar to runners in a marathon that stop for a drink or a cool wet down or a few seconds to rest and gather themselves for the journey ahead of them.

So the birds are moving in mass. As they do periodically some of them stop briefly before gathering themselves for the trip ahead. Some pass by with other destinations in mind. I spent about 4 hours at the impoundment and I watched birds arrive and depart on a pretty regular basis. Who stops depends on who is moving and whether the stop is worthy of their fixation on getting home. The few minutes or hours that the birds spend on here on their journey are critical for any trained athlete competing against their peers and the elements to return home.

In fact, these small, rather unappreciated little habitats are critical from the tundra to the Gulf Coast, Central and South America. It is a dilemma for us hominids that see our environment differently. We often value these places little when they are in fact precious to our natural heritage. The reality is that these places could and sometimes are the difference between life and death.

Today, I was birding with Steve Matherly from Houston, Texas. We were watching a White-rumped Sandpiper, an unusual fall shorebird migrant in its own right, when we both noticed a shorebird in the sparse vegetation encroaching on the wetland and retreating water in the August heat. It was a larger bird. There were two shorebirds that prefer the "weeds" to the mudflats and pools. The Buff-bellied Sandpiper was one possibility but this bird was too tall to be that rare shorebird. We quickly determined it was an Upland Sandpiper.

Upland Sandpipers are a rare nesting and endangered breeding species in Ohio's minuscule grassland and prairie habitats. This bird appears to be a juvenile who's origin is unknown, but probably not Ohio. For that reason this sighting is noteworthy as the Upland Sandpiper is a rare visitor in migration and more common in spring but rare in fall.

This bird was, as most migrants are, focused on food and security. It was not shy. It came within several feet of a growing entourage of birders responding to a posting of the bird's appearance on the Ohio Bird List Service provided by the Ohio Ornithological Society. The bird was oblivious to spotting scopes, binoculars and cameras. It stayed around from 8:45 am till at least later afternoon. Fortunately, many birders got a chance to see both the Upland Sandpiper and the White-rumped Sandpiper.

Birders begin as novice observers and with perseverance go through a transformation to better birders but  also more appreciative of the world of birds and the incredible life histories of both the common birds but also for some of our mega travelers that log thousands of miles as they travel across the hemispheres.

I strongly encourage you to get "out there" and see for yourself these amazing travelers and when you do, try to imagine why seeing them in migration is both a blessing as well as an important lesson in natural history.

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