Shorebirds worth noticing
As we round the corner of mid-summer, with Labor Day now dimly visible at the horizon, it’s time you got serious about shorebirds. And I mean the workaday, unappreciated, migratory shorebirds that pass through here every summer, tired and hungry, hoping you’ll notice them. That super rare and mysterious media darling, the Mountain Plover, is gone, but our more expected transient shorebirds have incredible stories of their own to tell.
If you count the super rarities and one extinct species, 55 species of shorebirds, meaning sandpipers, plovers, and their ilk, have been found on Cape Cod. But don’t panic, as only about 20 of those are likely, and really less than ten are expected on a walk in good shorebird habitat. Some recent reports from places like Morris Island in Chatham and First Encounter Beach in Eastham tallied up to hundreds each of Semipalmated Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, all fresh from somewhere in arctic or sub-arctic Canada.
I just want to pause to point out that some historical, boneheaded ornithologists have doomed birders to saying the word “semipalmated” over and over thanks to a half-millimeter web of skin between those species' toes that you will never ever see. Also, the most prominent feature of a Short-billed Dowitcher is its very long bill. The early ornithologists were just trolling us.
If you can get past the silly names, shorebirds are worth the effort. For example, head to flats around Wellfleet harbor in search of Whimbrels, big, spectacular sandpipers with a loud piping call and an absurdly long, decurved bill. They say the bill is so shaped to extract fiddler crabs from their burrows against their will. I’ve never seen this behavior to be necessary in Wellfleet, where these lopsided crabs are so thick their collective footfalls sound like rain – the Whimbrels just walk around lazily eating them like popcorn. When after a few weeks they’ve had their fill the Whimbrels fly their crab-fattened bodies to South America.
In saltmarshes, you can also expect to see, and hear, lanky Greater Yellowlegs, who are in no hurry – many linger into November and some will overwinter. Tiny Least Sandpipers pop out of the marsh grass and dart away, giving their equally tiny trilled calls. If you feel ready for advanced sandpipering, search among the common species for a White-rumped or Pectoral Sandpiper. These elegant, long-winged little shorebirds migrate from Arctic Canada to Southern South America and back each year.
Some shorebirds are still fighting their way back from the market gunning period of the 19th century, when barrels full of shot shorebirds went to Boston restaurants. They shot thousands at a time, and at least one species never recovered –the once-abundant Eskimo Curlew hasn’t been seen since 1963. On an August day in 1863, numbers enough to “darken the sun” were reported on Nantucket and Tuckernuck, 7000 of which were shot.
Many species still struggle. A recent paper by several shorebird biologists, including from local organization Manomet, looked at population trends for 28 species of migratory shorebird. They found that 26 of them were trending down, some significantly. Some of the worst-off included the Red Knot, the Hudsonian Godwit, and the aforementioned Whimbrel and Short-billed Dowitcher. So don’t take these amazing, hemisphere-hopping creatures for granted this summer. They may look like they don’t care, acting all aloof as they hoover up invertebrates from the flats, but they are really just shyly dying for you to finally notice them.