Shorebirding at Ground Level! - 26 Jul 2014

It was going to be a hot, humid day here in SE Michigan with afternoon clouds and possible storms. But this morning the sun was shining with partly cloudy skies so I headed down to do some more shorebirding at Pt. Mouillee SGA. I parked at Roberts Rd. and biked over to Cell 3 just minutes before 7 am. The sun was still coming up over the horizon, so lighting was not really good for any birds unless the sun was directly behind me, so I left the bike in the SW corner and walked east toward the Lake Erie shoreline.

From the east dike I could scope the peninsula in the SW corner and see several Pectoral Sandpipers, Stilt Sandpipers and Short-billed Dowitchers among the dozen or so Lesser Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Sandpipers.  The highlight was seeing a second-cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull among several dozen Herring Gulls in the same age group.

As I continued north along the east dike I spotted the 2nd-cycle Great Black-backed Gull in the same location as earlier in the week.  A 2nd-cycle Herring Gull was next to it and the two made for a nice contrast in plumage. Note the gray back feathers contrasting with the still-brown feathers of the primaries and tail. Bill is light but still retains a dark tip. One could confuse the Herring Gull w/ a Ring-bill Gull if not for the pink, fleshy legs.  Alternatively the GBBG shows the bright white head and brown/black feathering and a bill that is black w/ yellow tip.

Near the NE corner of Cell 3 a group of Least Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs were foraging along the bit of mud flat lining the shoreline. A Short-billed Dowitcher was in digiscoping range even in the early morning light. Another half-dozen dowitchers were in the NE corner of the cell but a bit out of digiscoping range.  I scoped the mudflats and shoreline for plovers and found three Semipalmated Plovers among another dozen Killdeer.  Otherwise there appeared to be nothing prompting to hurry my pace.

The trek across the north dike of Cell 3 gives closeup views of construction equipment, a bit of trash, and flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds among the phragmites. An Indigo Bunting was a nice consolation but (always) out of photographing range. When I got around to the NW corner of the cell and within range of the mudflats I spotted a half-dozen American White Pelicans in the Humphries Unit. It was then that I realized that I had not seen any in Cell 3 to this point.

The usual colony of Ring-billed Gulls, Caspian Terns and Forster's Terns were sitting in the NW corner of the mudflats near the water's edge, and shorebirds lined the water's edge like beads on a rosary. Most were Lesser Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Sandpipers, but a few Stilt Sandpipers, Killdeer, and Short-billed Dowitchers broke up the monotony. An American Avocet was in the shallows separating the NW and SW mudflats, but moved off as I approached.

I was happy to see the three Wilson's Phalaropes from a few days ago working the shallows.  I spent a  little time digiscoping them and a few of the Semipalmated Sandpipers before the first fly-over pelicans sent all the shorebirds scrambling for deeper water.

Given that clouds were starting to move in, and that I was not getting fast shutter speeds as it was (digiscoping) I decided to pull out the Nikon V1 and attach it to the 300/2.8 VRII and 1.7X Teleconverter via the FT1 adapter. This gave me an EFL of 1377mm and much faster shutter speeds for (attempting to) capture those fast-moving shorebirds. I set up near the open water from the top of the dike and waited for the shorebirds to return to their foraging, which they did in no time. For the next half-hour or so I tried to photograph the Wilson's Phalaropes as they foraged in open waters about 30-60' away.


A few hundred photos later I decided to inch my way down the side of the dike to the base and edge of the mudflats. From here I was more to ground level and would spend the next hour or so photographing shorebirds foraging as close as 10' away! I would empty almost two 16GB cards in the process.  The sun was backlighting birds to my left, but as long as they stayed to my right I could get some nice images that filled the frame. A Short-billed Dowitcher was especially fun to photograph as it probed the mud and played tug-of-war with Tubifex Worms.

The Wilson's Phalaropes were steadily moving closer to shore and allowed for some nice images from 30-40' away. A stunning female, with her bright red neck coloration, contrasted sharply with the 'whiter' males already molting into their basic plumage.  Its nice to be close enough to see some fresh basic feathers appearing on her back!

When the phalaropes would drift out of range I would turn my attention to the Semipalmated Sandpipers on the mudflat just a few feet away. For the most part these birds were readily identifiable by they plump shape, short stubby black bills and short wing projection that doesn't quite reach the tail, overall 'gray' appearance and and partial necklace w/ whitish throats.

One individual caught my attention, however. It appeared significantly larger than the surrounding birds with an overall bulkier appearance (middle bird at left).  Immediately I suspected White-rumped Sandpiper and proceeded to photograph the cr*p out of it.  After all, it was foraging less than 10' away and oblivious to my presence.

When reviewing my images of this bird, however, I noticed how 'brown' this individual looks. The necklace is pretty distinct and very suggestive of a White-rump adult in worn breeding plumage.  However, the bill is very short and lacks any evidence of the reddish base that is typical of most WRSA.  Also, wing projection is shorter than the tail when it is expected to be at least tail length (for young males) or longer. So I'm concluding that this is an adult Semipalm in worn breeding plumage, but the question could be raised if there is any White-rumped x Semipalm hybridization going on. I suspect not, but have asked for a couple of opinions. 

I received a nice response from Julian Hough (Hartford, CT) who responded with the following:

All the birds in the images are Semipalmated Sandpipers and from a plumage point of view are typical of that species at this time of year. Structurally, females may stand out from the males in a flock by being longer-legged, slightly longer bodied/winged and longer-billed but plumage wise there is nothing unusual I see in the images to suggest anything other than typical Semips. Looking through flocks locally here in CT at this time of year, it is apparent that Semips are very variable - some being quite grey-toned while others are darker/browner. The upperpart color and pattern is rather monochrome, with the scapulars having a dark centre (with a pale basal area) and paler buffier fringe. The breast pattern and underpart markings can be very variable with some individuals showing heavily coalesced chevrons/streaking across the breast while others are more lightly marked on the breast, but most, like the birds in your images, show hairline streaks along the rear flanks and lateral tail coverts.
Thank you, Julian!

And here's a response from Kevin Karlson, co-author of the The Shorebird Guide:

This is the most variable shorebird that I have ever studied carefully in over 30 years, with males much smaller than large females, and with bill size differences of up to 50 percent from small males 15 mm stubby bill to larger females with much larger bodies and bills that are long (up to 24 mm), fine-tipped and droop at the tip more than male Westerns. Your bird is hard to assess since its bill is open, but my first impression was a first year male Western, with the well defined chevrons on the breast, but the bill appears to be too small for a Western and some Semis show strong chevrons on the upper breast that don't extend into the mid-breast area like your bird, so I would just say that it falls well within the variation of size in Semipalmated Sandpiper, which we list in our book The Shorebird Guide at 14 - 41 grams, which translates into a huge variation in size between small males and fully fattened females. Some female Semis are larger than male Westerns, but your bird appears to be a slightly larger Semi compared to the two other Semis that I won't try to sex with the bill closed, and without a side view. Male Semis tend to have very short primaries that extend just short of the tail, while females have longer rear bodies and consequently longer primaries that may extend to the tail tip that give them a longer, more tapered appearance than males. I study hundreds of Semis alongside larger numbers of Western Sandpipers about 2 times a week at this time of year at Stone Harbor Point in NJ, and over the last five years have gotten to know them quite well compared to male Westerns.

Thank you, Kevin!

I'm am so very impressed w/ the quality of images coming from the Nikon V1 (10MPx) attached to the Nikon 300mm f2.8 VRII and TC17EII Teleconverter. The combination provides accurate focusing (manual-assisted Autofocus) and gives shutter speeds in excess of 1/1000 sec. wide open under bright skies and ISO 200.  Being a mirrorless camera means 'quiet' when shooting birds. Compared to digiscoping images are much sharper, brighter, and truer in color balance. Edge sharpness is superior to anything I'm getting w/ my digiscoping rig, and keeper rate is terrific.  A Wimberly tripod head would be a welcome addition to this setup, but in the meantime I can pan fairly well to follow birds moving on the mudflats in front of me.  I did have a nice Baird's Sandpiper appear at my feet, but could not swing the camera and tripod around fast enough to get any pics before it flew off!

My digiscoping rig provides better magnification for distant subjects and is preferred for stationary or slow-moving subjects.  Of course, I'd rather have my D7100 attached to the 300/2.8 VRII when flight shots and fast-moving birds are nearby.  But its a terrific rig, and I'll probably be swiping Robin's Nikon V3 (20MPx) the next time go out to the mudflats.


Mntncougar said…
Since you obviously don't have marine sandworms, and earthworms would drown underwater, what is the Dowager pulling on?

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