Oct 25 2009
This year I’m making a new effort to study shorebirds because I’m so bad at identifying them. My task is made harder by living in Pittsburgh where we have no breeding habitat and no ocean. My best bet is to visit the places they stop on migration – at least an hour’s drive away.
Last Sunday at Pymatuning I heard there were dunlin and pectoral sandpipers in the first empty pond at the Fish Hatchery so I went there to see them. My method is to sit down and watch for a while because they all look the same to me. Were they really the same species?
I looked for the standard fieldmarks to separate the sheep from the goats:
1) Did they have fancy or colorful plumage? No. They were all the color of sand and very dull in their basic (winter) plumage. I couldn’t see any distinct bibs on these birds as I expected to find on pectoral sandpipers. Had the pectorals left or was I just really bad at this?
2) What color were their legs? Most had dark legs but a few seemed to have yellowish legs like pectoral sandpipers. Was the yellow a trick of the light or were the pectorals still there? Were there other species I hadn’t heard about? Or was I just incredibly bad at this??
3) What color and shape were their bills? Black bills from face to tip! Their bills were ‘fat’ at their faces and slightly droopy at the tip. (Dunlin.) But some of the bills were a little different and some of the birds would not show me their bills – like the bird in this picture. Sneaky!
So you see, I still have challenges (one being that I don’t own a scope) and am probably missing some key fieldmarks that would have helped.
In the end I figured out that all the birds were dunlin. The pectorals had left. Whew!
(photo of a Dunlin by Chuck Tague)