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In This Place

September Shorebirds of Note

Kenneth Cole Schneider / flickr
Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Each year, untold numbers of shorebirds of mostly remote, Arctic breeding grounds pass through the Cape and Islands. Here they gorge on intertidal fauna and roost on protected sandbars and beaches, fattening up before continuing on to destinations as far away as the other end of South America. This passage happens continuously from July through October to some extent. But September has a particular feel to those who follow shorebird migration, though part of it might just be post-Labor Day elation.

At this point, most of the adults have passed through, and this year’s youngsters now make up the bulk of birds you’ll see on the beaches, often easily aged by their crisp plumages, each feather brand new and still precisely edged in white. These naïve kids have likely never seen a person and often allow close approach, sometimes rendering binoculars overkill. Beyond this generational shift, the numbers start to change quickly. The huge flocks of August start to dwindle as birds move on, leaving fewer of these challenging birds to sort through with each successive day. But a few sought-after species are more likely to turn up in September, like Pectoral and Baird’s Sandpipers, as well as today’s subject, the jewel of September shorebirding, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

If you listen regularly you’ll notice that, like many birders, I tend to be a fanboy of the rare at the expense of the common. So before I get into the obscure species, I should point out that the overwhelming majority of shorebirds you will see on your beach strolls right now are some combination of Sanderlings, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers. That’s right, two of the most common species share the same useless, awkward moniker, semipalmated, which refers to the invisible partial webbing between the toes.

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper, in contrast, is at least somewhat logically, if prosaically, named. Seen well, it is a work of art. They are elegantly proportioned, with a crisply scalloped back set off against the soft buff base of the upperparts. Bright white wing linings and a staring dark eye set on a plain, expressionless face also help distinguish them. Only a few per year can be expected, mostly in September, and you are most likely to see one at Race Point Beach or Monomoy.

But they do turn up elsewhere, including short grass fields like at golf courses and airports, and may be underreported. A relatively inexperienced birder used the free Merlin app to automatically identify his photo of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper at West Dennis Beach the other day. These artificial intelligence apps with their automatic identification algorithms both amaze and frighten me — with all these apps, soon no one will need the likes of me to identify things for them, at which point I will simply disappear, leaving only a pile of clothes and a pair of binoculars.

From here, they make an incredibly long, perilous flight to Argentina, where they winter mainly in overgrazed coastal pastures, for some reason. I feel like we have overgrazed pastures a lot closer than that, but to each their own. These are serious migrators, completing the equivalent of 500 marathons in just their southwards migration, and may be in it for the sense of sheer athletic achievement. A particularly fit male was documented flying 25,000 miles round trip one year between the Arctic and Argentina.

So in this post-Labor Day world, after you finish dancing in circles, arms aloft, singing “Boys of Summer” or some other end of summer songs, spend some time studying these sandy sojourners pattering about on our beaches – they have some amazing stories to tell, and you might just find the jewel of September. And thanks to automatic identification apps, you won’t need people like me to identify them. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sob quietly into the want-ads.