Thursday, August 18, 2016

Michigan's First Sharp-tailed Sandpiper! - 13 Aug 2016

On 11 Aug 2016 Kevin Vande Vusse photographed a "funny-looking" Pectoral Sandpiper at the Muskegon Wastewater System and posted the image to the Facebook ID page. After several back-and-forths it was realized that he had discovered Michigan's 1st Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (Calidris acuminata). This "Siberian Pectoral Sandpiper" is a vagrant to North America and typically only seen in the Aleutians, Alaska, Hawaiian Islands, and Pacific Coast. To have one appear mid-continent is somewhat astounding. But sure enough, it was here, and birders from all over the midwest started flocking to Muskegon, MI to see the bird.

Robin and I took a day trip and drove 3 hours to Muskegon to look for the bird. Skies were mainly cloudy with high humidity, winds and brief rain showers. We arrived at about 1:30 pm and joined a dozen other birders trying to find the bird, which had disappeared for the previous 30 minutes in the weedy washout of the mid aeration ponds along the NW side of the Wastewater System.  Within 5 minutes we were able to relocate the bird among several Pectoral Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Killdeer.

This was not a cooperative bird, at all. No sooner would someone see it the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper would disappear back behind the vegetation patch, or among several of the Pectorals.  I managed to get some brief video captures despite the wind, rain, and distance (>300 ft). Lucky for me that I did, as my digiscoping photos failed to show the key identification marks of the bird, even at full magnification of the scope.

I used a Zeiss 85T*Fl Diascope Spotting Scope w/ a 20-75X Zoom Eyepiece, Sony Alpha a6300 Mirrorless Camera with a Sigma 30mm f/2.8 lens, and Digidapter™. At 75X magnification the equivalent focal length was ~2250 mm. However, when I videotaped the bird using 4K imaging the EFL doubled to ~5500 mm. This was enough to grab some sharp stills and see the characteristic identifiers of the bird, which appears (almost) identical to the Pectoral Sandpipers that are common here.

Take a look at the Pectoral Sandpiper (C. melanomas)  at left. Note the yellow legs, two-toned yellowish-gray bill, and distinct "bib" that stops abruptly at the chest and is bordered by an all-white belly, flanks and underside. The bib is finely-streaked and a white supercillium is visible above the eye. Its reddish-brown cheek patch is similar in color to its reddish-brown cap. White-fringed feathers on the back suggest that this is a juvenile bird that shows just a hint of a buffy wash on the breast.

This is a worn adult Pectoral Sandpiper foraging below the water. Note the uniform gray-brown feather coloration on back and neck.

The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper appears similar in size and shape, with a slightly shorter neck, shorter gray-black bill, and flatter head (Hayman, Marchant, Prater, 1986). Note the distinct "chevrons" along the side that extend below the undersides of the tails.

From this image you can see that the distinct bib of the Pectoral Sandpiper is absent. Instead, the chevrons grow in size as the bib is extended well onto the lower belly.

I had a difficult time seeing the distinct reddish cap on this bird. It could have been lighting, or the wind, or the distance, but the cap did appear darker relative to the Pectoral Sandpipers, but certainly not a distinguishing mark.

These images show the back side of the bird, which has brown-black feathers with cinnamon fringes. Nape, neck and cap all seem continuous in color.

If approved, this will be Michigan's 1st State Record of the species. Congratulations, Kevin on a great find!

Epilogue: Over 40 birders tried and failed to find the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper on Sunday, and apparently it hasn't been refound. Today (17 Aug 2016), an eBird report of a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was posted from a fish hatchery in Arkansas! Same bird???? Michael Linz sent me an e-mail w/ pics of his bird in Central Arkansas. Congratulations, Mike!


Hayman, P., Marchant, J., Prater, T., 1986, Shorebirds, an Identification Guide, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

O'Brien, M., Crossley, R., Karlson, K., 2006, The Shorebird Guide, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

Weekend at Brownton - 07 Aug 2016

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been making appearances, as well as up to seven Baltimore Orioles. The jelly feeder has gotten a workout. Here are some recent pics.

Cell 3 is No More - 27 Jul 2016

It has ceased to be. Sadly, Cell 3 at Pt. Mouillee SGA has dried up, forcing shorebirds to find wetter climes for their fall migration destination. The Humphries Unit is a good candidate; its drying, as well and is providing good habitat for shorebirds. Problem is, the habitat is spread out over a couple of miles of innaccessible marshland, so bad luck, photography!

I did find some Pectoral Sandpipers relatively close to shore at the extreme south end of the Humphries Unit (along the dike from Roberts Road parking). Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and a couple of Short-billed Dowitchers were in view, as well.

A pair of Eastern Kingbirds were perched just a few feet away. They were juveniles looking for a handout from mom and dad.

Other notable sightings included a dozen Yellow Warblers flocking along the south end of Cell 3, and several Indigo Buntings along the bike trail.

Digibinning the National Zoo! - 21 Jul 2016

I'm accompanying Robin for a few days here in Washington, DC while she attends a Futuring Workshop for work. While she's in class, I've been checking out the local attractions. The National Zoo is only 1.1 miles away from our hotel, so I took a walk to the zoo and spent the day checking out the exhibits. I didn't bring any of the camera or digiscoping equipment, but instead just brought a pair of Kowa 8x33 binoculars and my Sony a6300 camera. With only the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 on the camera I had no telephoto capabilities, but used the binoculars as my lens. Without an adapter I was forced to handhold the camera and binoculars to photograph the locals, but had pretty good luck! Here's my digibinned photo-essay.

Image quality was not bad, but there was a significant blue-shift in all images that had to be corrected. Chromatic aberration was also a problem, but that was probably due to less than perfect optics from the binoculars. Still, I had a ball taking photographs of the local birds and captive animals. An Acadian Flycatcher was the best countable bird of the day.

Pt. Mouillee Shorebirds - 14 Jul 2016

The past few days have brought a brief respite of thunderstorms that (hopefully) are replenishing a bit of the water that we've been losing w/ the recent drought. This evening I rode out to Cell 3 of the Banana Unit at Point Mouillee SGA to check on shorebirds.

When I arrived I found that greenery is quickly filling in the dried cell. Luckily, there is still water in the middle of Cell 3 and, despite the recent rains, the ground is still cracked (but now wet and cracked). A quick scan of the open water revealed tons of shorebirds and gulls!

I shimmied down the bank using my tripod as a stabilizer, and hiked along the edge of the vegetation toward the north end of the cell. One, it kept the sun to my back, but more importantly, it kept me from sinking in the mud and spooking the shorebirds.

Spotted Sandpipers were working the dried mud bottoms in numbers I've never seen before. At least two dozen birds were scattered ahead of me. Least Sandpipers numbered in the dozens.

Lesser Yellowlegs number in the hundreds, and were foraging among dozens of Short-billed Dowitchers in the open water. "Gulls" were packed in their usual spot along the east shoreline at the south end of the still-exposed mudflats: Forster's Terns, Common Terns, Caspian Terns, Ring-billed Gulls and a few Herring Gulls. A pair of Black Terns were a nice find!

I quickly scanned the open water and found the American Avocet still present.  I managed some digiscoped images from over 100' away, but it soon disappeared when I turned my attention on a half-dozen Stilt Sandpipers nearby.

The Stilt Sandpipers were fairly cooperative today. I had the 20-75X Zoom Eyepiece on the Zeiss 85T*Fl, so I was able to do a bit more zoom-digiscoping w/ the Sony a6300 and 30mm f/2.8 Sigma.

The Short-billed Dowitchers were my next targets and also were very cooperative.

A lone Bonaparte's Gull was foraging at the north end of the cell, and I watched in fascination as it stirred up the water with its "dancing feet" in order to bring worms and bugs to the surface. "She's a maniac, maniac on the floor" kept going through my head. Check out the video below: