Friday, July 15, 2016

Fri-D: Shorebird Flocks

[One of the first things experts do when addressing a flyby flock of shorebirds is decide if they are all the same species. This group looks all the same size, but compare the top right and bottom left birds with the rest. What's different? The feet and legs project well past the tail, the bodies are slimmer, and the bills are shorter. These two are yellowlegs with a group of dowitchers. Which yellowlegs? You'd be inclined to evaluate the bill size to make that call, but that's not necessary. Since they are about the same body size as the dowitchers, they are Lesser Yellowlegs; Greater Yellowlegs would appear obviously larger. Which dowitchers? The odds heavily favor Short-billed, and indeed I heard their mellow descending tlu-tlu-tlu. If I had not heard them, with this view I would combine probability with the white bellies (not orange) and say Short-billed Dowitchers. South Cape May Meadows, NJ this week.]

Shorebirding has much improved over the past few days here in Cape May, which is to be expected since July is an important month for southbound shorebird migration. This surprises some people, the business of "fall" migration in July (or even late June). Several mornings this week I've enjoyed watching shorebirds fly past or drop into the South Cape May Meadows, a.k.a. The Nature Conservancy's Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, arguably the best July birding spot in Cape May.

Shorebirds headed south in July are all adults, with, generally speaking, failed breeders coming earliest, then females (especially in species where the male parent gives the little care baby shorebirds need), then males, though these different groups overlap very broadly.

Important fact: all southbound shorebirds in July are adults in worn breeding plumage; we won't see the bright, neat juveniles until the very last days of the month, most not until August. This means if you have a shorebird and are using plumage features to aid identification, you don't have to age it right now: they're all adults (unless they are first year birds that didn't migrate all the way to the nesting grounds. Sigh. You can't say always or never when it comes to nature.)

But shorebirds are best identified by size, shape and behavior - see the caption above.

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