A couple of great-blue herons waded in the deeper water very actively hunting for fish. A male and female mallard dabbled just at the water's edge where it was deep enough to rest on the water yet shallow enough to reach the bottom with a submerged neck and bill. Four killdeer worked the mud maybe 20-40 yards back from the water's edge. A pair of bald eagles surveyed the scene from the upper branches of a lone pine tree on the adjacent hillside.
It was the two sandpipers foraging where mud and water meet that captured my attention the most. I quickly noted the compact shape, thin straight bill, dark back with small light spots on it, greenish-yellow legs (that are all to often caked with mud so a very unreliable field mark!), and that bold white eye ring that makes this bird look like its all hopped up on coffee all the time!
Mudflats can be some of the most foul-smelling habitats yet they attract some of the most incredible long-distance migrants.
Have you heard the saying, One man's trash is another man's treasure? Well, one person's foul-smelling mud is a sandpiper's buffet! It's not so much the mud itself but the insects that thrive in it. During it's migration, a solitary sandpiper will pluck copious amounts of insects, small crustaceans, and small mollusks out of the mud.
Irony on the flats is two solitary sandpipers foraging side-by-side. But that's exactly what happened as you can see in the photo to the right. Wow! Look at those dark olive wings and that fine barring on the tail and that all hopped up on coffee look! SO-LI-TA-RY SANDPIPERS!
Here's a fun fact in case you're ever on a game show and one of the categories is North American Sandpipers: The solitary sandpiper is the only North American breeding sandpiper that nests in trees. You heard that right, this silly sandpiper makes use of old songbird nests in spruce bogs in the far north for breeding. Cool right?
The solitary sandpiper breeds as far north as the southern edge of the Arctic circle and it spends its winters as far south as Argentina. Imagine all that this bird sees during the course of a calendar year; and no passport! Sweet freedom!
It's birds like the solitary sandpiper and other kinds of sandpipers that make the intersection of conservation and science very interesting. If we are to count these as neighbors (which is to say, those to whom we extend love and kindness) the preservation of habitat throughout their entire migration pathway must be considered. It's not enough to preserve breeding habitat. It's not enough to preserve wintering habitat. It's not enough to preserve habitat along the flyway. Each of these three and more must be considered.
What can we do to help wild neighbors like the unique solitary sandpiper and others? Here are a few ways that each of us can help:
- We can give to support the work of organizations like the National Audubon Society.
- We can work to reduce our ecological footprint by how we live. Here's a quick link to an ecological footprint calculator.
- We can participate in research and conservation initiatives like eBird.org.
In closing, if you're looking for something fun to do grab some binoculars, head out to a lake or some other body of water, and look for mud at the edge of it. If you can find the mud, chances are birds like the solitary sandpiper will be there between about August to the end of October.
Or you can check out this 4 minute Virtual Wildlife Tour of the Hamilton Lake Mudflats that I put together this morning: