Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sunday Shorebirds: Sanderling or Red Knot

It was Sunday morning and time to get the family out of the house for the day. Perhaps we could go Birding?!? I had been looking at eBird to see where we might go, but there have been very few reports lately. Very few. Two or three during the entire month of August for the few spots along Lake Ontario where we normally go.

However, one of the most recent posts (from a day or two ago) listed several shorebirds that I hadn't seen (including the Stilt Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper). It was for a place I hadn't been before: the Brock Street bridge in Whitby, Ontario. Nearby, at the Lynde Shores Conservation Area, there were also reports of similar shorebirds along with the Common Gallinule. (The Common Gallinule used to be called the moorhen, and not many people get excited about seeing this duck-like bird, though I don't recall ever seeing one before and, of course, this would be a nice addition to the year list.)

We headed off to Lynde Shores with high expectations and a picnic lunch. When we arrived, we parked on the west side of the marsh where you can walk down to a viewing platform, where I took a quick inventory of the birds around: Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Mute Swan, Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, and smallish (not little!) gulls flying about. I asked the other binocular-clad fellow what these birds were and he identified them as Bonaparte's Gulls. A Caspian Tern flew by and there was a tree full of Double-crested Cormorants on the far side of the marsh.

As we were standing there, and I was inspecting the distant margins of the marsh for the gallinules or maybe a stray rail (I had been lucky like that before), my spouse asked if the Common Gallinules were really at this spot. I said that they had been seen recently and the other binocular-wielding fellow chuckled and asked if we meant the moorhens. "Yes. Have you seen them?" was my response. No, he hadn't see them lately but this started a typical birder conversation. The shorebirds could be seen from the north platform but you would need a scope and it was a long walk to the other side. The moorhens are most often seen from over there too but he hadn't seen them this year. Hey, there went a Belted Kingfisher! And most interestingly -- he volunteered more local information (that matched that on eBird): if you want to see shorebirds, head over to Brock bridge. He added that there is a nice mudflat there and you can see the shorebirds with binoculars; this morning he had seen various yellowlegs, sandpipers and even a Sanderling. He seemed quite the birder, you know, the kind who knew his stuff. I replied that this sounded a ok to me but that I had already seen Sanderlings back in February when we had been birding in Louisiana. This last part took the fellow aback for a moment and it was suddenly then he said he needed to get going. I scanned the marsh a few more times while we had our lunch but saw nothing more of interest.

I knew that we now had to make a stop. That stop? The Brock Street bridge! It was simply but a few minutes by automobile from the previously mentioned conservation location, though we first made a side trip to allow the children time to carouse with the chickadees, Mallards, grackles, and Bluejays at the feeding area. I, myself, took a quick walk to the northern viewing area on the opposite side of our current marsh with my eldest heir. Alas, there was nothing new to be seen there! No moorhens lurking in the cattails. Not even a Gallinule. Perhaps the bridge destination would be our spot?

We loaded up the car and traveled over to said bridge and, lo, there was a birder already there with a spotting scope. By the time I had repositioned the car and pulled off the road, Scope Guy was packing up his car.  I hurriedly jumped out to get a quick look at the shorebirds when he takes me aside to quietly inform me that he just saw there a Good Bird. With a sense of foreboding dubiousness, I decided that I will always bite on this any day and asked what was it. A "Red Knot" was the answer.

A Red Knot!

I let that sink in while I took to the task of looking at the mudflat with my binoculars. There were a few Semi-palmated Plovers and perhaps a Least/Semi-palmated Sandpiper or two ("peeps" is what the kids say). But several larger shorebirds as well. One was clearly a yellowlegs, but what were the others? Scope Guy asked me my thoughts and I said that, golly, my binoculars just weren't good enough. He asked if I would like him to "bring out his scope" for me to "get a better look". Though I was unsure if I was ready for that, I decided that I couldn't be swayed by his talk only. Yes, I told him, I would be happy to use your scope. He set it up and pointed it at his Red Knot.

It was...not...Red. Instead it was a grayish, whitish bird that was about the size of a yellowlegs without the yellow legs. It had a black beak with a black tail. I checked my Peterson's guide and it didn't have a good non-breeding season drawing. Maybe Sibley's would have a better drawing? Oh who are we kidding...I headed off to car and got the Sibley's.

The drawing in Sibley's looked just like the Red Knot wandering around the small mudflat. This is when some other people showed up: One was another Scope Guy who also thought it was a Red Knot and the other was a lady asking if we had seen the crane, which had been there the day before. As I explained to her that it was probably a heron that she had seen, the other two guys were trying to call another well-known birder (R.P), who had posted the original sightings on eBird. I went back to looking at the other shorebirds as Scope Guys both worked the cellphones and emails. I saw that there were also a couple of Stilt Sandpipers there (another year bird for me) when the first Scope Guy mentioned that a Sanderling had been reported here the day before, but he was pretty sure that this bird was a Red Knot. I reinspected Sibley's Guide, which had helpfully placed the two birds on facing pages. They did look similar but the Sanderling is mostly white on the bottom and smaller than a Red Knot. This bird was too big and showed the distinct mottled coloration on its sides. It had to be a Red Knot. It was a Red Knot.

I talked to the two other birders for a couple minutes and decided I should go before the family got too restless waiting from me in the car. As we drove off, I started wondering about the Red Knot/Sanderling sightings. Was a Sanderling seen the day before or was that a mis-identification? The two birds look quite similar but the size is different and the field markings are not the same. Not only that, but Sanderlings have a quirky behavior. Perhaps this behavior would be absent on a wave-less mudflat? I knew we had seen a Red Knot but it bugged me that there was an inconsistent reporting. Could a Sanderling have been there yesterday and a Red Knot there today? What would be the odds of that happening?

I checked eBird a few times after we got home to see if there was any resolution to be found in The Brock Street Bridge Mystery Shorebird Caper. First, I found out that Red Knots are somewhat rarely seen in southern Ontario; only 2-3 sightings of them all year in this area, and this is the first for August in all of Lake Ontario. But I know we saw a Red Knot. So I checked to see if R.P. had posted any new sightings. Maybe he came over to see the Red Knot later in the afternoon and would confirm the Red Knot sighting? If he didn't change his original Sanderling sighting, we could assume that the two birds had both been to the bridge. R.P. did put up a new eBird report that showed that at 4:21 pm he saw a Red Knot at Brock Street (along with 20 or so other bird species, I guess he likes to be thorough) and he didn't change his original report. So there we have it, we saw a Red Knot and he saw a Sanderling yesterday too. What a coincidence.

Oh shorebirds, what would we do without you!

Sanderlings in the Louisiana surf.

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