One of the recent Audubon Explorations stopped at “Muckrace Flats,” a shallow wetland beside Savannah Spring Lake Road east of Crusoe Creek. The recently constructed shorebird habitat is named after the Montezuma Muckrace* (see below), an annual birding competition that raises money through entry fees and pledges. Some of a previous year’s money was used to create the Flats.
A number of recently-returned shorebird species were spread across the shallow puddles. As the birds probed in the mud to find invertebrates to eat, they were apparently unconcerned about our presence and several Greater Yellowlegs stayed in close proximity to the gravel parking area. It was easier to identify them because several Lesser Yellowlegs sometimes passed nearby. (In the field guides, the Lesser is listed as 10.5” long while the Greater is 14” in body length. Otherwise, they are very similar including white rumps and tails as they fly away.)
As a group, the bright yellow legs make these slender shorebirds easy to pick out, but separating the two species without direct comparison depends on bill shape and thickness. It’s the same problem a birder encounters when trying to separate Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. The Hairy is larger with a more substantial bill, and it’s similar for the Greater Yellowlegs which has a proportionately larger bill with a slight upturn in the middle. The Lesser’s is more delicate, thinner, straight, black and needle-sharp. In good light, the Greater’s bill is two-toned after breeding season and more blunt at the tip.
The Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) breeds in an east-west band from southern Alaska across the mid-latitudes of Canada to the Maritimes. Their preference for nesting on islands in mosquito-infested bogs and clearings in coniferous forests has discouraged most ornithologists from studying them, so little is known about this common species. According to the website, All About Birds (operated by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology), Greater Yellowlegs eat “small aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, small fish, frogs, and occasionally seeds and berries.” If you visit the website, you also can listen to the bird’s “tu-tu-tu” call.
The Greater Yellowlegs winters on both coasts below Oregon and New Jersey, across the Gulf, down through Mexico and into all of South America. During migration they can show up anywhere in between.
*The 14th annual Muckrace competition will be held September 10-11. It starts at 7 pm on Friday night and ends 24 hours later at the Montezuma Audubon Center. Teams of birders can look for birds anywhere in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex and the team with the highest total number of species (not individual birds) is the winner in their class. Besides competitive teams, there are also categories for recreational birding, youth groups, families and low-carbon birding (such as hiking, biking and canoeing). Based on last year’s results, it will take at least 130 species to win, but weather can knock that number down. Registration deadline is August 26, but pledges can still be made after that. More information can be found on the News page of this website, or you can e-mail me at The Northeast Naturalist.
What's in a name? Take the compound word "sandpiper." Sand refers to the beach where these shorebirds are often found. Sodus Point quickly comes to mind. Piper refers to the sound made by some species. There's a group of small sandpipers, all similar in appearance and difficult to tell apart, that are collectively nicknamed "peeps" (another reference to their voices). Among these, the smallest is the Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla. Not only is it the smallest to pass through New York, it is the smallest shorebird in the world.
Least Sandpipers begin showing up in the Finger Lakes Region in late April, peak throughout May, then slowly decline through June as the last of the birds fly to the Canadian tundra to nest and breed. Early migrants that failed to nest begin returning in early July and this reverse flow continues to build through the summer, peaks in September and trails off into early November. Most of our birds winter along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida, or across the Gulf coast south into Mexico and northern South America.
Dark feathers with buffy or rusty edges give sandpipers a scaly appearance on the back and wings. The belly is usually white while the head, neck and chest are various shades of brown. The black bill, used to probe for food, is longer and thinner than the bills of songbirds. Most small sandpipers have black legs, but here is the one distinguishing feature of Least's -- their legs are yellowish or greenish-yellow.
The length of a shorebird's bill determines its feeding style and diet. A very short bill, like that of a Semipalmated Plover, limits it to feeding on the surface. At the other extreme, very long bills like those of snipe, dowitchers and curlews, allow them to probe deeply into mud. Inbetween are most of the sandpipers which probe to a shallow depth and capture aquatic invertebrates like insects, small crustaceans, worms, and mollusks such as small clams and mussels. The Least Sandpiper prefers to feed on mudflats giving it the nickname "mud peep." Does that mean we should change its name to the Least Mudpiper??
Send questions, comments, corrections and anecdotes to The Northeast Naturalist.
Yes, it was alone, and yes, this is typical behavior for this species. They often travel by themselves or in small flocks at most. After spending the winter in Central or South America, or Southern Mexico or the Caribbean, these birds stop briefly at the Montezuma Wetlands to refuel and then be on their way to Canada. We see them from mid-April to mid-May, but the peak is during the first week of May, so the one seen May 5th at Malone Unit #1 on Savannah Spring Lake Road was right on schedule. Birders on the monthly Montezuma Birding Tour, run by the Audubon Center, had stopped to watch another bird when this one was discovered on the wetlands’ edge near the road.
The Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) is eight or nine inches long and thinly built. The white eye ring, speckled dark wing and darker "shoulder" bend are keys to identification. The somewhat similar but chunkier Pectoral Sandpiper lacks these features and has a more densely streaked breast with an abrupt lower border. The legs of both species are olive-yellow and both have medium-sized bills. The Solitary’s rump and tail center are dark. These features become important when separating this bird from its close relative, the slightly larger Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) that has a white rump and mostly white tail.
Once shorebirds reach their breeding grounds across Canada, the males of most species defend a territory, build a nest on the ground and usually help with incubation. The Solitary has a somewhat different tactic, though; it lays its eggs in the deserted tree nests of songbirds including those of robins, blackbirds, kingbirds, jays and waxwings. For most shorebirds, after the eggs hatch the parents often split up and only one remains to care for the chicks. Usually the female leaves a few days after hatching and sets off on a leisurely migration south. Here in the Finger Lakes Region we see this as a longer stay for shorebirds on the return trip, usually beginning in July and often lasting through October. For the Solitary Sandpiper, the peak is mid-July to late August with a few birds lingering until early October, but global warming may shift those dates.
Questions, comments, corrections, anecdotes and suggestions may be sent to The Northeast Naturalist.
For more information on other birds around the Wetlands Complex, visit the new website for the Eaton Birding Society, which covers Wayne, Seneca, Ontario and Yates Counties. The species profile page contains links to species on The Northeast Naturalist's blog. These are repeated below.
Chuck Gibson, of the Eaton Birding Society, had what may be the first spring record of Hudsonian Godwits (Limosa haemastica) in the Cayuga Basin on June 3, 2010. His photos (one of them above) showed an intensely-red, breeding-plumage male with two duller birds, probably adult females, at the Montezuma NWR. On the evening of June 4, Jay McGowan, Tom Johnson, Matt Medler observed "one bright male Hudsonian Godwit foraging in one of the open spots in the pool northeast of the visitor center deck." The bird was occasionally seen through the weekend, including Saturday evening, June 5, when a Wilson's Phalarope briefly dropped in next to the godwit before both birds took off. One godwit was still near the visitor's center onTuesday morning, June 8, at 9 am. LaRue St. Clair relocated the godwit and 2 Ruddy Turnstones from the Towpath Road on June 11. They were along the first impoundment about a third of the way in. (Also present, a good assortment of ducks: Gadwall, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, 1 Blue-winged Teal and many Wood Ducks and Mallards. Also 2 Sandhill Cranes from East Road. On June 12, 2 Sandhills with 2 colts were seen from the paved part of Carncross Rd.)
Shorebirds are a varied group of species that utilize wetlands for feeding and resting during migration. Most of them travel to the Canadian tundra north of the treeline to nest. Most arrive on breeding grounds by early June and immediately begin establishing territories and building nests. By the time the chicks hatch, insect abundance is peaking. Can you visualize the swarms of mosquitoes? And you thought it was bad here in the summer…
Arctic summers are short and many shorebirds are heading south before August. Adult females often leave first, followed by adult males and then the juveniles. Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpipers begin showing up at the Montezuma Audubon Center’s south impoundment in July. The entire Montezuma Wetlands Complex is an important resting and refueling station for migrating shorebirds. Identifying the exact species can be difficult due to similarities in size and plumage within the various groups, but the spectacle can be enjoyed and appreciated as a whole without knowing the individuals. Late August and early September are the peak of the autumn migration here in the Finger Lakes. A number of species linger through October, and Dunlin are even common into early November.
One of the less common, but also largest, shorebirds to stop at Montezuma is the Hudsonian Godwit, a member of the sandpiper family. It’s 15 to 16 inches long, about two and a half times the length of the tiny Least Sandpiper. The long bill, used to probe for invertebrates in the mud, is pinkish with a dark tip. Fall adults are gray, but juveniles are browner with pale tips on the back feathers. A dark tail contrasts with the lighter rump. If the bird takes flight, look for dark wing linings underneath.
Hudsonian Godwits breed in five isolated colonies across the Arctic: two locations on the southwest shore of Hudson Bay, a strip of shore on the Beaufort Sea in the Northwest Territories, and two sections of the Alaska coast. They winter in southern South America, mainly along the coast of Uruguay, Argentina and southern Chile. While some of the birds seem to make amazing nonstop flights of several thousand miles at a time between these extremes, others rest more frequently along the way. Some gather at James Bay before jumping to the Atlantic coast. From there they go to Venezuela and then jump again to the final winter destination.
A sporadic Hudsonian Godwit is possible at Montezuma from early September to early November, but you’re more likely to find a few from late-September to mid-October. Some years, there are none. They are never common or widespread because the size of their population is now limited. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) lists the species as “near-threatened.” It’s believed that Hudsonian Godwits never recovered from unregulated market hunting and feather collecting in the late 1800’s. More information about their current distribution can be found at ebird.org, and current sightings are often posted on Cayugabirds, an e-mail list. See the Links page, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Corrections or additions may be emailed to the same address.
below is a fall photo of a Hudsonian Godwit at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, © Dave Spier