Sunday, September 7, 2014

World Shorebirds Day

As a child, I grew up in Oxfordshire, right in the heart of England and almost as far as it is possible to get from the coast in the UK. This meant that I had little chance to get to know shorebirds (or waders as they are called in the UK) and found the various species very difficult to tell apart for many years. But I wasn't entirely starved of these birds; I have fond memories of wandering through grassy water meadows while Common Redshanks stood sentinel on nearby fence posts. Their alarm calls alerted me to the presence of fluffy chicks, hiding somewhere in the grassy tussocks, but I never found them, so good was their camouflage. And although I was starved of a variety of breeding shorebirds, I was still challenged each spring and autumn by migrants passing through - local gravel pits would regularly attract Little Stints, Green, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Common Greenshanks and others, and I remember rushing off to see my first Pectoral Sandpiper that had been attracted to a great, cavernous, wet hole that would eventually be concrete lined and become Oxford's second drinking water reservoir at Farmoor.

Adulthood saw me gradually getting to grips with these interesting birds and, in the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to be among some of the very first tourists ever to visit Sakhalin Island, off the Pacific coast of Siberia, and to see the strange and enigmatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper - three birds, sweeping their paddle-shaped bills through the mud in all their full, breeding-plumaged glory. During that period this bird was much sought-after simply for its uniqueness; nowadays, it is sought for its rarity value. In less than 20 years, Spoon-billed Sandpipers have almost completely disappeared from the globe, their critical migration stop-overs denied them as vital tidal habitats have been permanently flooded for the benefit (benefit?) of mankind. Nowadays, a single thread of hope for this species remains in some captive breeding programs - not an easy thing to achieve with a migratory species.

Saturday, September 6th was World Shorebirds Day - and I'm prepared to bet that it passed an awful lot of people by. To the vast majority of people, shorebirds are not something they tend to be aware of, since the birds don't tend to hang out in urban areas; to those who are aware of them, it may simply be that these waifs of the shoreline are considered a major inconvenience when areas of pristine sandy beach are roped off during the summer months, denying pleasure-seekers of a little fun. Even among birdwatchers, it often takes a special kind of dedication to really get interested in a group of birds that might be considered to largely consist of a mottly selection of 'little brown jobs' that hang out in some rather unsalubrious locations.

All of this is a shame, for shorebirds in general are great indicators of the health of our wetlands and hopefully there is no-one who would disagree that a healthy human population needs healthy wetlands, for we all need water to drink. On a global scale, wetlands are disappearing even faster now than they have ever done before - even with all the protection that we may feel that we are affording them. So there has never been a more urgent time to review and monitor the state of the world's shorebirds. Take a moment to visit the World Shorebirds Day website and, if you were out and about this weekend, consider entering your shorebird sightings into eBird, from where they may be used to help us understand population levels, distributional patterns and much more about these amazing birds.

To celebrate the variety and vibrancy of some of the world's shorebirds - and to show you that they are not all grotty little non-descript things (although some are!) here's a few special birds from around the world - as well as from Cape May:

Pectoral Sandpipers are attractive shorebirds, but don't especially stand out from the crowd when seen on migration. However, the males really come into their own on their Arctic breeding grounds (as here, in Alaska) when they inflate air sacs in their necks and start making wobbly, booming noises! So always be prepared to be surprised by shorebirds [photo by Mike Crewe].

Perhaps one of the things that shorebirds are best known for are their sometimes quite extraordinary feats of migration. The Bristle-thighed Curlew breeds in Alaska and winters in islands of the central and south Pacific. These birds depart the southern Alaska coast and make non-stop flights of at least 4000km over open ocean. And as if that was not enough, the adults leave first, with the juveniles make their first southward migration unaided [photo by Mike Crewe].

Not all shorebirds are, well, shorebirds. The Peruvian Thick-knee, with its wonderful duck-egg green eye, is found in semi-arid grassland and sub-desert habitats from southern Ecuador to Northern Chile. Species such as these, that live in very dry areas, are very susceptible to sudden changes in habitat and the resultant loss in what little water there may be for them [photo by Mike Crewe].

Shorebirds have populated almost every corner of the globe, with some isolated locations holding some truly unique species. The Diademed Sandpiper-plover is a remarkable bird that breeds at over 12,000feet in the high Andes of South America. Though it has quite a wide distribution, it is nowhere common, usually occurring in isolated pairs in suitable patches of mossy bog, high above the limit of the tree line. Its world population is completely unknown and can only be guessed at [photo by Mike Crewe].

Some of the world's shorebirds give real cause for concern; the Madagascar Plover's entire population can be found in coastal southwestern Madagascar, where there may be fewer than 1000 birds left. Its decline may be due to competition with Kittlitz's and White-fronted Plovers - two species that have relatively recently arrived in the region, most likely as a result of man-made or man-influenced changes to the environment [photo by Mike Crewe].

Who said shorebirds were boring little brown jobs? Some of the world's shorebirds are truly stunning to look at, perhaps none more so than the enigmatic Egyptian Plover - a bird that is neither a plover, nor Egyptian, though it did formerly occur there. Decked out in powder blue, blushing peach and striking black lines, this bird is the Crocodile Bird of Socrates, said to enter the open mouths of the great reptiles and clean their teeth. Sadly, this behavior has not been reliably reported in modern times and seems to be a myth [photo by Mike Crewe].
Closer to home, Cape May hosted this American Golden Plover for several days last week, a species that, like the Bristle-thighed Curlew, performs a great feat of migration. These birds breed in the high Arctic tundra of North America and winter in the grasslands of southern South America; and yet in the past they served as alternate 'fun' for thousands of shooters who turned to these and other grassland shorebirds such as the Eskimo Curlew after the Passenger Pigeon had been wiped out. The birds receive protection now, but numbers continue to decline as habitats on the breeding grounds, migration routes and wintering areas all continue to degrade or disappear [photo by Mike Crewe].

Wetlands in the Cape May area are also degrading, in part due to poor, or even a lack of,  management strategies for conservation. Thankfully this year, the area's birdwatchers - and its birds - have been very grateful for the efforts of The Nature Conservancy who, despite adverse weather at times - have done excellent work in beginning a water control strategy at the South Cape May Meadows, aimed at providing prime shorebird habitat during spring and fall migration periods. Today, the site bustled with vibrant shorebird activity and sightings include Buff-breasted, Baird's, Stilt and Pectoral Sandpipers among at least 15 species of shorebird present. Seen above, Short-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Dowitcher and Lesser Yellowlegs all enjoy the delights of benthic invertebrates for breakfast [photo by Mike Crewe].

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