Sunday, August 17, 2008

Shorebirds At Rocky Hill Meadows

Every August, an increasing number of shorebirds start to show up in the fields at Rocky Hill Meadows. Since I don't have to travel far to get there, it's a nice alternative to shorebirding along the coast. Another nice feature of this location is that you don't have to worry about catching the right tide since it is nothing more than a series of fields with a few oversized mud puddles.

In this post, I'll be talking a little bit about identification of shorebirds. Keep in mind that I'm just a beginner when it comes to shorebird identification. There's still a lot of species that I haven't even seen and I still frequently misidentify the ones that I have seen. I'm sharing my own personal learning process with you but I'm not attempting to teach anyone else because I'm not qualified to do that.

Least Sandpipers Are Not the Least Of My Problems-
If you look at the photo above, you will notice that the bird is a small sandpiper with a thin, slightly down-curved bill, so I'm going with Least Sandpiper but I'm not 100% certain. This might be an easy identification for a birder who is experienced with shorebirds but it's not an easy call for me. I have to look at them carefully before I make up my mind. I still confuse them with the Semipalmated Sandpiper which is supposed to have a more blunted bill tip and black legs. The problem is that you can't always get a good look at the legs and it can be tough to judge the bill shape at a distance. There are lots of other ways of separating that goes well beyond the shape of the bill and the color of the legs. Least Sandpipers make a high, musical, trilled prreep call according to Sibley. Semipalmated Sandpipers have a low, husky, chruf flight call. I've also been trying to pay attention to the behavior of sandpipers because this can be helpful with peep identification. I find it helps when I seek clarification from more experienced birders when trying to make an identification. I plan on making several more trips to the meadows between now and the end of September. Hopefully, I'll learn something before all is said and done.

When And Where To Look For Birds At The Meadows-
  • August And September seem to be the best months for shorebirds here.
  • Search where the sod has been torn up, especially along the edges.
  • Search for large puddles of water and muddy areas.
  • Look along the edge of the fields.
  • Search areas where there are large concentrations of killdeer to see if other birds are mixed in with them.

People will drive along the main road searching areas like the one listed above, then they will turn around and search the same areas all over again. Keep in mind that if you are birding here you have to stay on the main road. There are side roads that are privately owned and the owners don't like it if birders enter onto these areas. You also have to be prepared to move your vehicle out of the way in a hurry. Operators of large farm equipment and trucks have the right of way. Try to find areas to park where the road is wider and pull way off to the side. There are some really wide areas to park where the road bends.

There are very large flocks of Killdeer in the area this time of year. The killdeer has a double set of dark rings around the neck and breast, but keep your eyes open for Semipalmated Plovers, which are smaller and have a single, wide , dark breastband.

The Lesser Of Two Yellowlegs-
One of the more common shorebirds you can find inland are the yellowlegs. Just like their name says, they have long yellow legs that are almost always noticeable unless they are covered with water. The problem is that there are two different kinds of yellowlegs that look alike. The one below is a Lesser Yellowlegs. I suspected that it was but still asked someone else for confirmation. The Greater Yellowlegs would be noticeably larger and has a bill that is often slightly upturned and has a bill that is noticeably longer than the head. When the two species are seen together, it's much easier to tell them apart. If you see a single bird it can be trickier. I can usually identify a Greater Yellowlegs when it is on its own, but I sometimes have doubts when I'm looking at a Lesser Yellowlegs. It reminds me of the confusion I used to have with a Downy Woodpecker versus a Hairy Woodpecker. I would sometimes see a Downy Woodpecker that was a little larger than average and wonder if it could be a Hairy Woodpecker, but when I actually saw a Hairy Woodpecker there was no doubt in my mind that I was seeing a Hairy Woodpecker. It looked so big compared to a downy. Now, when I am in doubt between the two, I assume it is a downy. There were a few Solitary Sandpipers at the meadows over the last couple of weeks. I saw three of them today. The photo directly above and below this paragraph are the same bird which flew from one side of the road to the other. Notice how the difference in lighting seems to have changed the color of this bird. It looks almost brownish above but it is grey in the picture below. That is why using color as a field mark does not always work. Color can vary greatly due to lighting conditions. The eye ring, along with the overall size and shape, is a good field mark for this species.
As their name implies, I usually find them dining alone like this one. This sandpiper, along with the Spotted Sandpiper, are probably two of the easier sandpipers for me to identify because of their conspicuous field marks.
Rocky Hill Meadows has become increasingly popular among birders. There are many possibilities of rare or uncommon species passing through, such as: Baird's Sandpiper, Upland Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, dowitchers, and American Golden Plover to name a few. I spotted some Semipalmated Plovers, Pectoral Sandpipers, and a Wilson's Snipe last weekend. I was also present when a Western Sandpiper was spotted here yesterday. I was able to observe it wading in some water and feeding. It wasn't picking and skimming like some sandpipers do. It seemed to stay in pretty deep water. By the time I set my scope up, the bird had flown.
If you get tired of looking at sandpipers, there are other birds to be seen. It's fairly common to see birds of prey like hawks and falcons here-(guess what they're eating). Birds such as Lincoln's Sparrow, American Pipits, and Bobolinks can be found here at certain times of the year. I saw Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, and the Great Egret -(pictured above)- just this morning. I thought it was kind of cool that I could take a picture of the Great Egret even though I was pointing the camera right in the direction of the sun. I imagine this would only work early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Too bad the water is so muddy.

If you live in Connecticut and you've never been to Rocky Hill Meadows before, you might want to stop by here for a visit. You could do some limited birding here with binoculars but you would be much better off to bring a scope if you have one.
Directions: Take route 99 (Silas Deane Highway) to route 160. Follow signs to ferry. Once you are in Ferry Park, drive through parking lot towards your left (as you're facing the Connecticut River). The time which the locked green gate is opened in the morning varies. It was opened at 6am this morning but sometimes it isn't opened till 8am. If the Connecticut River goes reaches a level above 14 feet, they keep the gate closed. You can check: here.


John B. said...

Good post. I find that if I see a small peep away from water or inland, that it is usually a least sandpiper. It's not a diagnostic field mark, though, just a clue.

Ruth said...

You have some excellent pictures. Shorebirds are arriving in our area and I have a number of pictures I cannot ID. Juveniles muddy the picture even more for me. The Spotted Sandpiper and Kildeer nest around here and all the others just migrate through.

Lana Gramlich said...

I miss shore birds. Not a lot of shore birds where there's not much of a shore, y'know? And the marshes & swamps here are great hiding places for so many birds. Thanks for sharing your lovely photos!

Jayne said...

What a great lesson in shore birds Larry! I don't often see them either and so ID would be very difficult for me too. Great photos!

Mary C said...

Larry, you've done such a great job with this post. I think I'm gonna bookmark this so I can check back on the sandpiper IDs you provided. I like how you showed two photos of the solitary sandpiper noting how coloring can be different due to lighting changes. But at least I did take note of the beautiful large eyes and white eye ring - that seemed to be a very noticeable characteristic for this bird. Great shots and great commentary. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. BTW, I'm still a beginner, too, especially when it comes to shorebirds.

Larry said...

Thanks John- It's true percentages work in favor of Least Sandpiper if inland.

ruth-I guess it's like doing a crossword puzzle that's too difficult to finish.-It can be frustrating but you still feel compelled to work on it.

lana-thanks-I guess you could always take a vacation along the shore if you get to missing shorebirds enough.

jayne-I'm not in a position to be giving shorebird lessons to anyone jayne.I am trying to learn and have fun at the same time.-If I try to hard it won't be fun anymore.

Mary C.-I really do appreciate the solitary's eye ring.-At least it's onethat isn't to difficult to identify.-Relying on color for identification can really put you on the wrong track sometimes.

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Larry,
Most of those shorebirds are utterly new to me but that didn't prevent me from enjoying this post.

I like to get closer to the flocks of shorebirds using advance-stop-scan tecnique taking a bit of time with each stop to let the birds get used to our presence and using that time to scan thoroughly.

After a while the flocks of shorebirds get used to you and on my last tour, I was able to get 15m from a flock, which was a nice distance to work with with my 20-60x scope.

Anonymous said...

Hi Larry,
Long time no e! I too am currently working on shorebird ID. There is a great website where you can test yourself and learn a lot in the process. Go to you can always skid the non U.S. pictures. I have also found "The Shorebird Guide" byO'Brien, Corssley and Karlson" to be a wonderful resource. Hope life is treating you well. Taking a week's briding trip up to New England in early November. Anything your way worth the stop?

Kathie Brown said...

Larry, this is an exellent and informative post. I like how you try to educate your readers as well as yourself. Shorebirds are such a challenge and I have not seen some that you write about here. As for the Downy/Hairy ID, I have found it helpful to look for the black cross-hatching on the white side tail feathers of Downies. Hairy woodpeckers do not have these. Like you, I found it a challenge until I saw the 2 species together. Since then it has not been so hard.

Larry said...

gallicissa-Glad you were able to enjoy the post and that is a good technique you use to get closer to birds.-It takes some discipline to stay in one spot for a while if you are someone who likes to move around like me.-I'm starting to get better at staying in ome spot though.

pa-birder-Good to hear from you-I do have a kind of id game that I play on the computer once in a while.-I also have the book you speak of but almost never use it.-I just can't connect with the philosophy of the book.

Larry said...

Kathiebirds-Hairy Woodpeckers seem more obvious now.I'm aware of that fieldmark you speak of but I'm going to make a point of comparing the markings and lack of on the downy and hairy.