Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Real Sandpipers Wear Purple

On the rare occasions that I've managed to pull myself away from the seductive duo of couches and television sets over the past week, I've spent most of my time in the field.  Of course, when one spends the majority of his or her time in the student ghettos of East Lansing, a ten-minute stroll through a partially forested backyard more than qualifies as time spent in the field.  Luckily, my parents' yard exists at the convergence of a small field, a cottonwood-dominated riparian area bordering a river, and a cattail marsh, so the birding isn't half bad.

Eastern Bluebird

A small group of bluebirds has been hanging around for a while and the group was very active yesterday.  In particular, a single adult female would perch in a fairly conspicuous opening and sing for a few seconds, apparently luring a single adult male to her.  Upon the male's arrival, she'd quickly hop just out of his reach, hang around for a few additional seconds, then fly off to another perch and repeat the process.  The two carried on in this manner for the entirety of my ten-minute observation and probably for much longer.  Gowaty & Plissner (1998) indicate that this chasing behavior is involved in pair formation, which often takes place during the winter.

The leading authority on the olfactory profile of Williams Lake

On Christmas morning my faitful companion, Snapper and I took a short walk on the property northeast of Williams Lake in Jackson County.  I was hoping to find a Winter Wren, a bird I'd missed during fall migration, and Field Sparrows, which were present in this area late into autumn.  Just a short ways into our walk, Snapper flushed a large flock of LBJs, which initially appeared to be all tree sparrows.  A bit of searching through gobs of bicolored bills and breast spots yielded 3 Field Sparrows and a single Winter Wren -- a quality Christmas gift, indeed.

Field Sparrows

Yesterday I undertook a trip to the Lake Michigan shoreline that I've been meaning to make for some time now.  Berrien and/or Muskegon usually have fairly consistent reports of Purple Sandpipers early in winter, and this past week has been no exception.  Up to seven individuals have been reported from Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon by several birders.  Given that it'd been over a month since my last life bird, I headed out early yesterday morning with Don and Robyn Henise (who also needed this species as a state bird).

Purple Sandpiper

Within minutes of our arrival, this cooperative fellow popped up from the wave-washed jetty, eliciting an instantaneous "Holy crap!" from me.  Ironically, this outburst would immediately culminate in the premature departure of this individual's breakfast.  Sorry, mate.

Well before I had even grown tired of watching this bird pretend to sleep, several additional birds began emerging from all along the jetty.  The lack of fear for humans that are not yelling at this species is well-known.  As such, it wasn't terribly surprising when, at the end of our stay, I had fired-off over 500 shots of Purple Sandpipers alone.  Here are a few of my better shots from the day (none of which have been cropped):

I've always known about how tough this species is, given that they overwinter farther north than any other shorebirds in a pretty extreme microhabitat.  And while this was something that had previously earned purples a termendous amount of admiration from me, watching them endure the onslaught of crashing waves and roaring winds, all while walking around on rocks slick with the slime of algae, was incredibly impressive.  Several times I witnessed birds become completely submerged underwater after enduring the blow of a swift wave, only to pop right back up and continue foraging perfectly in place.  Even more astonishing was the ability of these birds to dodge incoming waves by briskly hopping across a labyrinth of slick stone, a feat (apparently) so trivial that it seemed relegated to the periphery of Purple Sandpiper concerns.

Shrugging it off like a champ

I found the interactions between purples to be particularly interesting.  It appeared that, given the direction of yesterday's winds, all of the sandpipers were confined to the first 200 ft of the jetty, which eventually bends north, right into the prevailing winds.  It seems that the jetty designer's neglect of Purple Sandpiper microhabitat preference (for shame!) forced these individuals into close proximity, resulting in persistent territorial disputes over foraging area.  These conflicts usually culminated in two individuals chasing each other in a low, labored flight complete with scolding chatter.

Snowy Owl

After getting our fill of rugged scolopacids, we headed to the Muskegon wastewater treatment plant to look for previously reported Snowy Owls and an Iceland Gull.  We dipped on the gull in tiring fashion but did manage to spot two Snowy Owls, including the adult male pictured above.  Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones who found this guy.


I'd heard that there was a guy at the treatment plant who had been intentionally flushing the owls for the sake of photography.  Much to my disappointment, such an individual was present yesterday, engaging in similar behavior.  Many birders and photographers seem to be ignorant or apathetic to the well-established fact that irrupting species are often literally starving to death.  As such, any stress that we might elicit in these birds through constantly approaching them for a better shot or a better view distracts them from feeding, preening, etc., making the already grim prospect of survival even worse.  Generally speaking, I see tremendous potential in the positive impact we as birders, naturalists, photographers, etc. can have on the wildlife we cherish.  But when I see behavior like this, I question some of our priorities.

Gowaty, Patricia Adair and Jonathan H. Plissner. 1998. Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/381

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