Late August often brings periods of unsettled weather, as if the engine of summer has begun to sputter a little. As a kid summering at White Horse Beach in Plymouth, I always enjoyed these August cold fronts because they cleared the beaches of people, leaving just me and the birds.
It was like nature couldn’t quite wait until Labor Day to start cleaning up after the summer tourists. At these times the seaweed stirred up by the storms collects on the beach, full of small invertebrates and tiny shellfish, providing high-end foraging opportunities for the Semipalmated Plovers and Sandpipers, Sanderlings, and Ruddy Turnstones. As a bird-obsessed kid, these were golden times. But with my nascent bird ID skills, I wonder how often I might have missed a rarity, like the super cryptic, undercover bird discovered hiding out in Chatham this week.
In the course of their latest expedition to South Monomoy, some uber birders discovered a bird so cryptic you’d practically have to ask for a DNA sample to identify it properly. Well, not really, but that’s not far from the truth. The species in question is the Common Ringed Plover, and it’s the spitting image of our common and familiar Semipalmated Plover. Picking one out can earn you some serious street cred in the birder world, for whatever that’s worth.
Some sources point out that the sure way to tell the species apart is the number of webbed toes – two in the ringed while the semipalmated has webbing on all three. So if you are looking at them through the Hubble telescope, this should be no problem to see. Actually, subtle differences in the plumage around the face and a different call was enough to tell them that this bird was definitely a Common Ringed Plover. Don’t be fooled by the name, as this was just the fifth ever record for Massachusetts.
The species breeds primarily in Greenland, Iceland and across the rest of the northern tier of the Old Word, but also sparsely in Eastern Canada. These Canadian breeders either pass through our area unnoticed, or, more likely, they join their Old World Arctic brethren and winter in West Africa. Thanks to the curvature of the earth as you get closer to the poles and the prevailing winds in fall, it makes more sense for them to head across to Europe and then down to Africa. A songbird, the Northern Wheatear, shares this strange Canadian Arctic to Africa migration strategy. Both species cause a stir when they turn up in the US.
I dedicate this bird report to my mom, who passed away last week at 87, perhaps explaining my misty-eyed remembrance of late summers past. My parents always encouraged or at least tolerated my bird nerdery, which originated on my mom’s side – I still have the tattered old bird book that my maternal grandmother used to record her backyard sightings. My mom wasn’t a birder, but she always kept binoculars by the window and she knew a Scarlet Tanager from a goldfinch. I tried to keep the hummingbird feeder filled in her later years, and always let her know when the Red-bellied Woodpecker was out there, as she loved it when they visited. I suspected her interest was somewhat feigned for my benefit, in keeping with the selfless way she lived her life. I hope any of you other sensitive birder kids or even adults out there are lucky enough have a mom like I did.