Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chasing Misidentifications

(Thursday, September 18, 2014)

Today wasn't just a normal Thursday.

Most Thursdays, after my classes at GRU, I pick up lunch at Chik-fil-a and coffee at Dunkin and head home. But today I had plans. Today I was going to find birds.

The previous day, I had received an eBird alert of rare shorebirds in Burke County, which is the county below my home county, and adjacent to my little town of Hephzibah. I decided after my Thursday classes I would head down to Waynesboro to try for the reported White-rumped and Stilt Sandpipers, both birds I need for my life list.

After picking up lunch and coffee, I headed South to Southern Swiss Dairy, a cow farm near Waynesboro featuring a muddy pond on the corner of Hwy 56 and Rosier Road that is easily visible from the road. There are usually Cattle Egrets, White Ibis, Killdeer, and Canada Geese here, but last month, I found 11 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.

I arrived shortly after 1 PM and immediately noticed a large flock of Blackbirds hanging around the cattle and in the trees. It was easy to guess they were Brown-headed Cowbirds and a quick look through my binocs confirmed my suspicions.

Out on the pond, I noted FOS (first of season) Blue-winged Teals and Lesser Yellowlegs, as well as the usual Canada Geese, White Ibis, and ubiquitous Killdeer. I tried to find peeps on the nearest shore, but to no avail. A little further out, on a muddy sandbar, there were a number of peeps, but scanning with my binoculars only revealed Least Sandpipers.

As the cows moved across the muddy shallows, the sandpipers took flight and landed on the far side of the pond. Fortunately for me, this meant all the peeps were concentrated in one part of the pond. I walked across the road to the opposite side of the pond where I was able to see the sandpipers more clearly. Once again, I only identified Least Sandpipers.

There was one bird I pegged as a possible White-rumped, but it wasn't any larger than the surrounding Leasts. This was a problem I constantly encounter with Leasts; they are so varied in size, posture, color, patterning, bill length, and bill shape that it can be very hard to differentiate them from similar peeps. It helps that their legs are a bright color, instead of black, but their legs are often coated in mud and it can be difficult to gauge leg color when the sun is overhead.

The aforementioned eBird report also included Semipalmated Sandpipers, which would be a year bird for me. I found no Semipalms. Though I couldn't definitively tell leg color on many of the peeps, I saw no short, straight bills.

A little further onto the pond I noticed on a muddy bank a few larger shorebirds. In addition to a couple Least Sandpipers, this little flock was comprised of Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, and my FOY (first of year) Wilson's Snipes, a species which I was surprised to have missed this winter.

I was able to observe these two groups of birds for a number of minutes, but it wasn't long before a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks flew over, flushing all the peeps. This gave me an opportunity to look for the tell-tale white rump of the White-rumped Sandpiper. I wasn't able to spot one, but not all the birds were not letting me see their rumps.

These weren't the only shorebirds they flushed, though. I managed to find a larger shorebird flying separate from the flock, calling distinctly. After landing on the opposite side of the pond, I identified it as a Pectoral Sandpiper, a common shorebird that was much needed for my Georgia list.

Also present was a Bobolink in the grassy field behind the pond.

At this point, I decided to call it day and head back home. I didn't find the Stilt Sandpipers or the White-rumped, or even the Semipalmated. After my arrival home, I viewed the reports again and the pictures labelled as Stilt Sandpipers were Lesser Yellowlegs. I'm not sure about the White-rumped Sandpiper, but the species was removed from the eBird checklist, leading me to believe it was a misidentification. I never saw any photos of the Semipalmated Sandpipers, but these too could have been Least Sandpipers in poor light, causing the legs to look dark.

Today hadn't been a total loss: I acquired 1 new bird for my Georgia list (Pectoral Sandpiper), 1 new bird for my year list (Wilson's Snipe), and 7 new birds for my Burke County list (Yellow Warbler, Wilson's Snipe, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Bobolink, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Blue-winged Teal). This pond is a great spot for shorebirds, with a rich history including species such as Stilt Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, and American Golden-Plover, and I will certainly be visiting here again before shorebird season is out.

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