Entries in Shorebirds (2)



Of all the fruits: cherries. Of all the months: October. Of all of the holidays: Thanksgiving. Of all of the birds: Rusty Blackbird. But--of all the groups of birds: shorebirds.

All birders have his or her favorite group or family of birds: the raptors in migration or the sparrows in a field. For many it’s easy: warblers in spring. For me, it’s shorebirds. Perhaps because I do associate them with water, the shore. Perhaps because I have spent so little time with them, the birds here in the Hudson Valley uncommon except in migration and even then there are few. Perhaps this group of birds retains a certain mystery because they are so elusive to me. And so when my friend Peter started reporting big numbers of shorebirds—a dozen Pectoral Sandpipers, a White-rumped Sandpiper, plus over forty Snipe at the Vly, a swamp in the northern edge of Ulster County, I had to go.


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Learning the Birds

All weekend Peter is singing, quietly, “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.” We are birding at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in northern New York State. The land is flat, grasslands, with pools and mudflats. The Refuge is known as a stopover for shorebirds heading from the Arctic to their warm winters in the south. We were there to see these birds, and to attend a workshop on identifying shorebirds.

As Peter sings, I realize I have no idea what the song is referring to. The not knowing adds to the overall sense of the weekend: I know nothing about this song or the history behind it (though it’s not hard to find this information); I know nothing about birds.  

We are up before dawn after a sleepless night in perhaps the most bedraggled motel room I have ever stayed in (the bathroom door had been punched in; the shower curtain sagged; the smell of stale smoke and sadness was so thick I could not sleep). The three-mile drive near the Montezuma refuge headquarters sits just south of route 90. So as we look across the foggy fields trying to spot shuffling little birds, the sound of semis roaring east and west joins the faint peeps that rise from the dark soil. We see them, the smallest of shorebirds, the least sandpipers moving across the ground, foraging for food; we see killdeer, a fat little plover, not as cute as his cousin the semipalmated plover.

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