Thursday, May 13, 2021

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Nemesis Species: Shorebirds

I remember when I first realized that there were gulls far away from the ocean. We were driving through Columbus, Ohio, and there were dozens of them, coming and going from a nearby landfill. I’m sure I’d seen them before—we’d driven that road dozens of times—but I’d never really paid attention to them. And birding is all about paying attention. 

Shorebirds range throughout the continent and despite the name aren’t even always associated with water. The American Woodcock makes its home in forests and fields. And the Upland Sandpiper, often seen on fenceposts in summer across the Great Plains, prefers native prairie grasses. In general, though, shorebirds are waders, found foraging for food along the edges of lakes, rivers, marshes, and even roadside ditches or flooded fields. 

Most birders have what they call a “nemesis bird”—that one species that they can never quite see, even though they know it’s there, even though someone is pointing directly at it. For me, it’s that whole group called “shorebirds” and while that term technically doesn’t include gulls, I lump them in there as well. I am terrible at shorebirds. When I go looking, they seem to know I’m there and fly just out of range of my binoculars. They surely hide in the reeds just to spite me. 

Their names are alluring: godwit, curlew, plover, dowitcher. The American Woodcock is sometimes called the Timberdoodle, a funny name for a funny bird whose eyes are nearly on the top of its head but whose “sky dance” during mating season is supposed to be spectacular. (I’ve never managed to see it, of course.) 

Shorebirds can be distinctive. The Long-billed Curlew, the largest of the sandpipers, and sometimes called a “sicklebird” or “candlestick bird,” has a bill that can grow to more than 8 inches long. American Avocets have salmon-colored heads and necks and boldly black-and-white striped bodies. These species are hard to miss and misidentify. (Somehow, I’ve managed.)

I have a rule that I don’t add a bird to my life list unless I can identify it independently. So before I go looking for shorebirds, I study the guides and memorize field marks. I quiz myself. I know that Hudsonian Godwits are have reddish bellies and a straighter bill than Marbled Godwits, which are more stripey and whose bills curve slightly upward. And then I get out there and birds that on paper look so different seem impossible to tell apart 50 feet away and belly-deep in water. (As I write, I’m still second-guessing my identifications from yesterday. I am sure this is not why my husband just put on his headphones.)

All of the species I’ve written about here—with the possible exception of the American Woodcock, which is normally found only along the eastern edge of the state—can be found in central South Dakota in May and sometimes throughout the summer. I hope you have better luck than I do!

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