Features

Shorebirds

sb23Story and Photos by Richard Ground

Shorebirds are those boring, brown little birds that paddle around in ponds–or that is what I used to think. Now I know better. True, they tend to be little and brown. True, they tend to paddle around in ponds. But boring they are not. Instead, they are the international jet set of the avian world, and many of them perform heroic feats of transcontinental migration each spring and fall.

The expression “shorebird” can be extended to almost any bird that lives on the shore, but here I am going to focus on plovers and sandpipers–oh, and the Oystercatcher, which is the only local representative of its family and something of the odd man out. In the Turks & Caicos Islands, spring is one of the best times to see shorebirds, as many migratory species are passing through the Islands on their way north to breed. Plovers are admittedly a bit dumpy and plain–short-billed and short-legged, they scamper around on beaches and mud-flats. Sandpipers tend to the other extreme, with long legs for wading and long bills for probing for their food in sand and soft mud. Oystercatchers hang about on stony beaches, looking for the odd oyster–or any other bivalve for that matter.

Five species of plover occur regularly in the Turks & Caicos, with two more only turning up rarely when they lose their way. Of the five regulars, three breed here and two just drop in to avoid the winter cold.
The three that breed here are the Killdeer, Wilson’s Plover and the Snowy Plover. The Killdeer is a common bird throughout North America and the Caribbean, and unlike the others, it lives in the Turks & Caicos year round. It can easily be identified by the double band across the breast. Hapless parents, killdeer nest and bring up their young near inland bodies of fresh water, like the pair that adopted a rain puddle on the road to our house. (Admittedly the road is in an appalling state and it was a big puddle, but they looked pretty silly when it dried out.) The other two are breeding summer visitors who nest in gravel at the edge of salinas, where great care must be taken not to step on their eggs.

The visiting plovers are the Black-bellied Plover and the Semipalmated Plover. The Black-bellied is large and, confusingly, entirely gray–indeed in Europe it is called the Gray Plover. It breeds in the far north, and when it does so it looks completely different, as it is black below, and brown above, but by the time it turns up in TCI, all but a few slow-coaches have molted into their gray winter apparel. As to the Semipalmated Plover, I’d always wondered what “semipalmated” meant: half covered in palm leaves, perhaps ? No. It means that its feet are half-webbed, in the sense that they have a small amount of webbing between the toes, unlike, say, a duck’s feet, which are completely webbed. Now you know, and can amaze your friends at dinner parties.

sb11Up to 20 different species of sandpipers occur in TCI, although of those, 6 only occur uncommonly during migration. One species, the Willet (Latin name Catoptrophorus semipalmatus–no prizes for guessing what its feet look like), is a summer visitor and breeds here, but all the others are either winter visitors, or simply pass through in spring and fall. Many of them breed in the tundra of the high Arctic during the short northern summer, migrating up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States to get there. Indeed, the Pectoral Sandpiper is one of the world’s great long-distance migrants, for they breed as far away as the northern coast of Siberia, and winter as far south as the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America.

The whole point of migration is to enable the birds to capitalize on the ephemeral summer wealth of the north, without having to spend winter there. The birds obviously think it worth the huge effort involved, but they do not hang about. As soon as the young are old enough to look after themselves, the parents head on back to the islands, leaving the youngsters to follow on when school is out. Some of the early return migrants pass the laggards still on their way north, and in the Turks & Caicos, you can see returning adults still in full breeding plumage, but somewhat travel-worn, as early as July. The young do not turn up until September.

sb16Most sandpipers have distinctive and colorful breeding plumage, but their winter wardrobe is rather drab and monochrome. This makes it much more difficult to tell them apart, so you have to observe carefully, and note other distinguishing features, such as size, leg and bill length, and behavior. The names of some of them give you useful pointers–the Solitary Sandpiper, for instance, behaves according to its name; the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs both have bright yellow legs, and one species is noticeably larger than the other; the Stilt Sandpiper looks as if it is walking on stilts; I do not have to tell you about the Semipalmated Sandpiper (although in real life you never get to see the feet); and the Least Sandpiper is the smallest of the whole group.

However, you can only rely on descriptive names so far: the Short-billed Dowitcher has the longest bill for its size of any of the sandpipers in TCI, measuring over 2.5 inches out of the bird’s total length of 11 inches. Luckily the Long-billed Dowitcher does not occur here, so you do not have to engage in the tricky task of telling them apart (which can usually only be done by song alone). Some birds are also named for their summer plumage, which they rarely if ever show here. Thus the Spotted Sandpiper is perfectly named if you live in Edmonton, but hard to identify with the plain, beige bird that turns up in the Turks & Caicos.

Despite the helpful names, it can be difficult to tell some species of sandpiper apart, and that particularly applies to the members of the genus Calidris. A group of the smallest, comprising the White-rumped, Western, Semipalmated (yes, its feet), and Least Sandpipers, are often lumped together under the collective name, “peeps.” This saves having to try to tell them apart, but it can be done. You can guess what the White-rumped has, and it is also the largest. Not only is the Least Sandpiper the smallest, but it has greenish legs and a finely pointed, slightly droopy bill. All the rest have black legs–and Bob’s your uncle. All right, I confess that the difference between the Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers eludes me, but experts can tell almost 75% of the time.

sb22Despite being called shorebirds, you do not often find sandpipers (or plovers for that matter) on the beach. On the whole they prefer the muddy edges of ponds or tidal lagoons. The exceptions are Ruddy Turnstones (which are ubiquitous) and Sanderlings. The latter, as their name suggests, inhabits sandy beaches. They can be seen chasing, and being chased, by the waves, as they try to snatch morsels of food from the sea’s maw, for all the world like little clock-work toys. Shakespeare must have had them in mind in the Tempest when he had Prospero invoke:
“Ye, that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back;”

In winter, Sanderlings are a grayish white, but in summer they undergo a sea change into something rich and strange. They become many-colored, and unless you knew, you would not recognise them as the same birds.

Oystercatchers, on the other hand, do not change much, nor do they go anywhere. They retain their distinctive black-and-white uniform and bright red beak year-round, although the red gets redder when they are in the mood. They breed in TCI, and their plaintive courtship call is one of the distinctive features of springtime. At this time they also engage in elaborate displays, some of which involve combination flying with exaggerated wing-beats, and much calling. Oystercatchers inhabit lonely sea margins, where they fossick about in pairs, looking for exposed shellfish. These they open with their specially adapted beak, which allows them to bring torque to bear to wrench bivalves apart.

So, the next time you see a flock of boring little brown things scuttling around at the edge of a pond, pause and have a closer look. You will not only find an intriguing variety of types and sizes, but a great deal of charm and muted beauty. And that is not all–some of them may just have flown in from Siberia.S



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Photographer Marta Morton was enjoying another spectacular sunset when she spotted this lovely scene—a picture-perfect clump of Old Man Cacti and the pastel colours of what she later learned were crepuscular rays (see page 18). For more of Marta’s images, turn the pages of this issue and visit www.harbourclubvillas.com.

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