A Vagrant is a Hard Thing to Pass Up

This past week, a very interesting bird was found. The first state record for Maryland of sharp-tailed sandpiper (ABA Code 3) was discovered just south of Baltimore and about a 4 hour drive from Pittsburgh. I went back and forth about whether or not to chase it for a long time, weighing my options. There were a lot of cons: I needed to start packing to move apartments, I couldn’t find someone to carpool with, I had an appointment I couldn’t get out of in the morning, and I was nervous about driving 4 hours for a bird having just dipped the week before on the Pennsylvania white-winged tern (also 4 hours away). However, two massive pros outweighed all of it:

  1. It was a sharp-tailed sandpiper.
  2. There were a BUNCH of other shorebirds being seen at the same spot, including 8 Hudsonian godwits, a needed lifer for me.

So I went. And it was well worth it.

The place was absolutely swarming with shorebirds. It was almost overwhelming the number of birds present. The location is a large pond next to the Chesapeake Bay. The water is rather shallow and for whatever reason a huge number of shorebirds have congregated there this season. The star of the show was being seen when I arrived and I was able to get great looks at the sharp-tailed sandpiper.

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Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

The bird stood out sharply (no pun intended) as the darkest bird in the flock and at one point foraged next two a couple of pectoral sandpipers, nicely showing the key ID points between the two similar species.

Fascinatingly, the sharp-tails that show up on the east coast are thought to be reverse migrants. This means essentially that instead of flying across North America from the Bering Sea as you might intuitively think would be the route a Siberian bird might take, they fly from their breeding grounds in Siberia the opposite direction of their wintering grounds in Australasia. This route takes them across the Arctic Circle and down into the eastern US. Quite a trip!

The eBird data below shows scattered reports of sharp-tails from the ABA Area away from the west coast (west coast birds are likely off course migrants from the normal route) and illustrates the vagrancy patterns of these reverse migrants.

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eBird Range Map of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

In addition to the sharp-tailed, the Hudsonian godwits were also present when I arrived. Not only was this a very long overdue lifer for me, but they were also the final world godwit species I needed after seeing black-tailed in Europe and a vagrant bar-tailed in California.

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A Godwit Squad

A couple merrily spinning Wilson’s phalaropes rounded out the trio of shorebird rarities present at the location, since sadly the previous day’s red-necked phalaropes were nowhere to be found.

In addition to these birds, a Baird’s sandpiper put in a brief appearance and a single western sandpiper foraged no more than 15 feet from the onlookers. However, the sheer number of shorebirds was a spectacle in and of itself. Over 20 stilt sandpipers foraged in the lagoon with 5-6 white-rumps. These numbers are even more amazing when you consider that even one of these birds is a good find just 4 hours away in western Pennsylvania. A couple short-billed dowitcher, hordes of yellowlegs, swarms of peeps, and a few scattered pectorals completed the picture.

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Stilt Sandpiper

The birds were confiding too, most highlighted by the flocks of peeps foraging for insects on the berm overlooking the pond. Large groups of semipalamted and least sandpipers were even coming as close as a couple feet from the adoring crowds photographing them. A couple of times I found my camera unable to focus on the scurrying pipers, a rare problem to have when photographing shorebirds.

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Least Sandpipers

There had also been a yellow-headed blackbird seen in the area over the past couple a days (a product of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect). However, the flock of blackbirds it was bumming around with had yet to put in an appearance. This turned out not to be a problem as some expert scoping by a birder present revealed a flash of yellow in amongst some blackbirds way on the other side of the lagoon.

With all the rarities in the bag and my brain full and my eyes hurting from shorebird observation, I loaded up the car and headed back towards Pittsburgh.

However, this wasn’t without a quick stop as it was going dark at Somerset Lake in Somerset County, Pennsylvania where spotted and solitary sandpipers and a continuing American golden-plover nailed me my 14th, 15th, and 16th shorebird species of the day. Quite a success!

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