Tuesday, September 8, 2015
A week ago, September 1st, I did what (believe it or not) is a fairly rare thing for me - I spontaneously took a day off work. For several days, there had been reports of a cooperative and ever-growing herd of Buff-breasted Sandpipers at a wetland near Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area in Wayne County. Toward day's end on August 31st, a report emerged that the flock had swollen to 19 birds! That was enough. I made arrangements to take a vacation day the next day, and headed north at O-dark: thirty. Arriving on the scene shortly after daybreak, I was instantly rewarded by a flock of buffs dropping in. Thirteen birds in all. For almost two hours, I had the place to myself and in all probably spent at least four hours studying and photographing these charismatic sandpipers.
Buff-breasted Sandpipers follow an elliptical migration route, and their northbound spring corridor lies well to our west. There are, I believe, only two acceptable (?) spring records in Ohio. The species is a very rare vagrant anywhere east of the Mississippi River in spring. The southbound fall flight is much more diffuse, and extends much further east. This is when we see all of our buffs. Most are juveniles like the birds in these photos, with their bright clay-adobe plumage and whitened feather edgings that give them a scaly appearance.
As with the aforementioned Pectoral Sandpiper, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a world champion long distance migrant. They nest in the highest reaches of the Arctic, where Polar Bears roam. The bird in this photo, which was born this summer, has already traveled 2,000 or more miles south. That's just the first leg of an amazing journey. And a leg that it may have made in one hop. After Buff-breasted Sandpipers depart the Arctic, some or most probably don't stop until they hit favorable refueling stations in southern Canada and the northern U.S.
Once adequately fattened, these birds will take wing again, and might not land again until reaching South America. Ultimately at least some may work theirs way to the southern tip of South America, or close to it. Some buffs winter in Tierra del Fuego. What is even more incredulous is that this bird and its companions are juveniles. This is their first time at this long-distance dance, and they do it without parental guidance. A built-in GPS and an innate knowledge of how to seek appropriate habitat, forage, and avoid sometimes formidable predators such as Peregrine Falcons is hardwired.
Back in the lawless days of unregulated market hunting, Buff-breasted Sandpipers were nearly shot out of existence. It is thought that their ranks once numbered into the millions. After the cessation of gluttonous market hunting practices, a rebound took place but the buffs have never attained anything approaching their former glory. A maximum of 84,000 birds are estimated to exist, but the actual number may be far lower. The lowball population estimate is only 16,000 birds.
Feathered globetrotters such as the Buff-breasted Sandpiper may play an important role in the dispersal of plants. For a brief essay on this subject, CLICK HERE.