One of the reasons that I love watching birds is that there are always surprises. I headed to Tybee North Beach at the end of September to collect data for the International Shorebird Survey. I was expecting to see sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, and maybe a willet or two.
When I got to the beach, I glanced at the line of dead marsh grass known as the “wrack” and spied a tiny marshmallow puffball of a bird – a piping plover, or “piper” for short. Quickly I checked its legs for bands but saw none. Then an ATV doing beach patrol drove by and flushed the bird. I gestured to the driver and explained that piping plovers are on the endangered species list and like to hunker down in the sand.
Continuing my survey, I found a small group of sanderlings, a ruddy turnstone and four piping plovers in a small cluster on the beach. Two of the “pipers” were sporting colorful anklets and thigh bands. The band combination on one of the birds looked like one I had seen last February, but the other one with an orange flag was new.
I could hardly wait to get back to my computer to send photos to the researchers at University of Minnesota and Virginia Tech, hoping to get information about my new friends.
I didn’t have long to wait. Even though it was Saturday night, Alice Van Zoeren with the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team sent an immediate reply.
“Exciting news! The new plover is one of this year’s captive-reared chicks. It’s always cause for celebration when one of them turns up on wintering territories after putting so much effort into their survival. This plover hatched at the Detroit Zoo after it was decided to collect the clutch of eggs at Silver Lake State Park. Because of COVID-19 the ORV scramble area was closed at the beginning of the nesting season this year and this chick’s parents put in a nest there. They were incubating at the time the park opened to ORVs and the nest would never have survived. The adults renested in a nearby, but safer spot.
“This little bird spent its first week at the zoo then was transferred to our captive-rearing facility at the University of Michigan Biological Station near Pellston, Michigan. This summer things were a little different because of the pandemic. Since zookeepers weren’t allowed to live at the Biological Station, eggs were first brought to the Detroit Zoo for incubation and hatching. Once the chicks were stable and healthy they were brought up where a small crew took care of them until they were well able to fly.
“This chick was released back near where it started at Silver Lake State Park, Michigan, on July 24. It was seen in Berrien County, Michigan, just a little to the south Aug. 27-30, and now you’ve found it in Georgia on Sept. 25!”
Wow! All I could think was how lucky it was that I had been at that particular place at that time looking for shorebirds.
The banded plovers were not my only bird excitement that afternoon. I glanced toward the water and saw a larger shorebird with a long beak, not big enough for a willet. My first thought was short-billed dowitcher, but as I studied the bird, I noticed that its beak was black with a distinct droop at the tip, and its legs were long and yellow. Could it possibly be a stilt sandpiper?
In the 20-plus years I have been watching birds on Tybee, I have never seen a stilt sandpiper on the beach. They are usually found further inland, preferring fresh water, marshy area, impoundments or smaller bodies of waters. I have seen them at Onslow Island, and most recently at a pond next to the Southern Swiss Dairy in Millen. I usually see them from a distance, using a spotting scope.
Finally, I had an opportunity to spend quality time with this special species. Overall, it had a more dainty appearance than the short-billed dowitcher, and it fed by dipping and plucking at the water, rather than the vigorous stitching motion characteristic of dowitchers. Based on the patterned plumage on its back, it was most likely a young bird that hadn’t gotten the message that it wasn’t supposed to be on the beach.
I completed my survey, tallying the expected sanderlings, turnstones and willets. On the return trip, I spent a little more time with my special buddies, the piping plovers and stilt sandpiper, giving thanks for unexpected treats. Good birding!
Bird enthusiast Diana Churchill can be reached via email at [email protected]