Sunday, September 1, 2013

That Creepy Sound! - 28 Aug 2013

Baird's Sandpiper
This morning I found a posting that announced that Pt. Mouillee SGA would be closing Sept. 1, just three days from now.  In years past the SGA would be open until the 15th of Sept. so I had to make a quick call to the DNR office in Gibraltar to verify.  Sure enough, in no uncertain terms, the message was given that 'birding' was off limits as of Sept. 1.  So I made sure to get down there this afternoon to check on shorebird habitat for the second-to-last time.

I ran into Charlie Weaver near the pumphouse along Mouillee Creek.  He had just returned from the Banana Unit and mentioned that Cell 3 was under water.  However, under additional scrutiny he did mention that he had not gotten down to the SW corner, so I felt a bit more relieved that the mudflats were still exposed. However, I found myself peddling a bit harder toward the Banana Unit, stopping only long enough to verify a Snowy Egret in the Humphries Unit and digiscope an accommodating Green Heron.

The late afternoon heat was bringing thunderstorms to the north, so the Vermet Unit was looking quite lovely in the sunlight with blackening skies behind.  In the NE corner I spotted a Cattle Egret foraging next to two larger Greater Egrets, and stopped long enough for a few digiscoped images.  A Northern Harrier was drifting in my direction, but settled down next to shore in the NE corner near a group of Wood Ducks, Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons, and a few scattering of shorebirds.  I took a quick long-distance image.

From there I ran into Kevin Thomas, who was making the trip from Mouillee Creek on foot.  Having not been to Pt. Moo in many years he was a bit amazed at all the changes he had noticed over the years.
We arrived at Cell 3 and found Dave Stimac, Darlene Friedman, Mary Tremblay and Jeff Buecking already scoping the shorebirds on the still-present mudflats.  Dredgings were being actively pumped in the SW corner through the giant, 3-foot diameter pipe, creating a small canal that split the mudflat in two and sending water rushing toward the far eastern shoreline.

The Red Knot was reported, but I was unable to relocate it.  Instead, I turned my scope toward the nearby peeps foraging in the small pond in front of us.  A pair of White-rumped Sandpipers were foraging in front of us just several feet away.  Notoriously-difficult to distinguish from other peeps, they become easier to ID during this time of year.  They tend to molt sooner than Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, so they tend to stick out more with their uniform-gray smoky heads and neck and throats, while their distinct, white supercilliums become more apparent and bolder-looking. But even on these graying birds you can make out the tiny fine streaking in the forehead and chest.

Warning! This image was NOT digiscoped

I've been ignoring the Semipalmated Plovers for no particular reason, so the slowing shorebird numbers prompted me to digiscope a few of the closer birds.  Note the pale, worn fringing that suggests a juvenile molting into its basic gray-brown winter coat.

When trying to ID shorebirds based on plumage aspects I've found that my eyes are drawn instinctively to the heads of birds. So, in order to really look at body feathering its better to look at headless birds in my photos.  Note the mostly gray-brown-black feathers of this juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper.  When a Least Sandpiper comes into the picture, with its distinctly orange-brown feathering, suddenly the two species appear distinctly different (especially among young birds).

Check out the plumage differences of the Least Sandpiper adult (top) and juvenile (bottom) in the image at left.

A pair of Baird's Sandpipers were foraging along the edge of the mudflats far away from the near shore, so only scope-views were possible.  So it was nice to see one individual much closer in.  The feathers on this juvenile show significantly more black, and when clean, the legs and straight bill are almost jet-black. The feathering shows that 'scalloped' look.

Three Wilson's Phalaropes had been foraging out on the edge of the northernmost mudflats but a bit too far away for even decent digiscoping.  So Darlene and I were thrilled when one of the birds flew in and began foraging just a few feet away.  The constantly-moving birds was giving me fits, trying to get sharp images while digiscoping at the lowest magnifications possible.  I managed a few nice keepers before it gradually drifted off toward deeper water.

That creepy sound? Imagine enjoying the quiet surroundings, interrupted only by the machine-gun 'drrr-drrr-drrr' of the Semipalmated Sandpipers, when a sudden surge of rushing water drowns out even the loudest shorebirds.  The mud and water flowing through the pipes would create a sound like a flash-flood coming toward you.  Once you recognize where its coming from its not so bad.  Its when the (I believe) vacuum breaks from the line after pumping ceases that the creepy sound ensues.  An unearthly, loud 'THWAK' reverberates through the line and travels the mile-long length of the pipe creating a sound that immediately screams 'Run Away!'.  Mary and I were joking that we leaving before any aliens or velociraptors would appear.

But leave I didn't.  A Baird's Sandpiper appeared ridiculously close to where I was standing, so I spent some time digiscoping the bird from just a few feet away.  In the waning sunlight the normally black-n-white looking shorebird took on more a brownish hue, so I had to be extra careful that I wasn't digiscoping a long-billed Semipalm.  But the bill length and distinct bib helped to overcome my initial confusion.

The rains never came, so I headed back toward the car, riding through clouds of midges and trying not inhale the extra protein.  A Green Heron perched in the dead snag next to the pumphouse begged for one last image before calling it quits.

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