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A bevy of Buff-breasted Sandpipers

Looking a bit like a clay figurine, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Calidris subruficollis, poses on a sparsely vegetated mudflat at first light.

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.

Legendary Cleveland birder Jerry Talkington snaps images of the Buff-breasted Sandpipers. This iPhone shot offers a good look at the lay of the land, and mudflat zonation. The buffs favor the low grassy lawn-looking parts of the flats, and generally eschew the bare mud and open water. As we sat in the dense stand of cockleburs lining the dike (where Jerry is sitting), the tame, confiding buffs would amble by within 15-20 feet at times. I started with a 1.4x extender clipped to my 500mm, but that much magnification was often overkill, so I eventually took it off.

A Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca, hustles up small invertebrates in the wettest part of the mudflat. These big sandpipers typically wade in deeper water than does most of their brethren. The yellowlegs can also be a bit annoying to observers and photographers. They are vigilant to potential threats, and quick to voice displeasure with loud piercing calls. Their alarms alert all of the other shorebirds, and sometimes put them to flight. The "telltales" don't bother me a whit - they're beautiful and interesting, and it's their job to act as the mudflat community's alarm system.

A pair of Short-billed Dowitchers, Limnodromus griseus, dropped in early, and stayed the entire time that I was there. I suppose a dowitcher might strike some as comical, what with its crazily elongate Pinocchio bill. They use that beak to great effect, jabbing it deep into watery mud and extracting tiny critters from the mire. Tactile nerves at the bill's tip allow the bird to feel prey sight unseen. Flexible mandible tips allow the tip of the bill to spread and snap shut on the victim.

A personal favorite is the little Semipalmated Plover, Charadrius semipalmatus. They resemble half-pint Killdeer with but one band around the breast.

A couple of Pectoral Sandpipers, Calidris melanotos, made an appearance. While all of the birds that I've shown so far bred far to our north, and will eventually end up far to our south, this is the only species I saw there that rivals the Buff-breasted Sandpiper for long-haul migrations. This bird briefly fraternized with the buffs, then paused to preen, allowing me to capture some interesting postures. While Pectorals will often forage on mudflats, they also frequent vegetated parts of the mudflats.

But to the subject at hand - the gorgeous Buff-breasted Sandpiper! The most that I saw at once was 13 birds and that's a hefty flock for Ohio. This is not a common bird here, and normally one only sees singles or perhaps aggregations of a few. Flocks into the double digits are scarce sights indeed. The record flock was 78 on September 12, 1985, in Ottawa County.

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.

To me, and I'm not the first to comment on this, the buffs look quite ploverlike. When foraging, they scuttle about rather rapidly turning and twisting to grab prey from the plants and ground. Shooting crisp images is harder than you might think. But when one stops and adopts an alert posture, as this one is doing, the ploverish apects emerge.

The flock contained an apparent Alpha, and he made a habit of attacking his mates. He's the animal on the right, having just sent another bird fluttering up and away.

A bit of a feather fluff makes this bird look like a model. I'd be mildly embarrassed to report how many photos I made of these birds. But I couldn't stop clicking away, hoping to capture interesting nuances of posture or behavior.

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.


Kathy Kramer said…
The pair in the 7th picture look like members of the OSU marching band.

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