This is my first reported estimate of shorebirds.
Of course, I’ve counted before; take a finger and number off how many individual Whimbrels are picking through the mud, take note of the two Yellowlegs just hanging out in between the flock, and you’re good. But estimates? That’s a different ball game.
For all of my fellow biologists in training, to estimate the number of shorebirds in a flock of hundreds to thousands of birds is like trying to figure out how many jelly beans are in the jar at the county fair. Except imagine that these jelly beans are injected with AAA Energizer batteries and pixie stix sugar. Peeps are incredibly energetic, they use their speed to jump on and snap up invertebrates in the top layers of the mud. Another challenge: these jelly beans don’t have many conspicuous differences in color; it can be extremely difficult to tell what “flavor” one bean is from another. Furthermore, it’s as though the bird knows that you’re desperately searching that field mark, teases you by staying still long enough for you to set up the scope, zoom in on it, and as soon as your finger brushes the focus, the sucker moves. At first, I laughed, recognizing the need to be quicker, but the game soon proves tiresome. I’m going to need an energy bar to keep up, because these peeps just keep going, and going, and going…
Nature can be a great source of energy, though. During this count, I may have redone my estimate about six times, a process that consisted of sitting on a wet rock for an hour while the cold rain and wind consistently slapped me in the face. Yes, this sounds miserable, but to be honest, these are details I’m only remembering now that I’m writing about it. While I was out there, I didn’t even notice the crummy weather; I was so excited to FINALLY be estimating shorebirds, the 102-yr earthquake and tsunami 2-punch combo expected to hit the Oregon coast could have KO’d me and chances are I’d still be trying to estimate what I saw.
I suppose this is the same elusive fountain of stamina that fueled the kids I worked with yesterday. As part of my work with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, I get to assist in education programs about shorebirds. This week are their yearly field trips, a two-hour window where school buses unleash swaths of eager children upon the mudflats of Hatfield. I love working with these kids; because they’ve been learning about shorebirds all semester, by the time they come visit us in the field they’re incredibly anxious to see these birds out in the open. This heartiness speaks to my own ball of frustration and zeal for finding the shorebirds on my surveys, so seeing it in the children makes me smile. They truly are biologists, curious about the world and excited to discover it.
Yesterday, however, bless these children’s hearts: Hatfield got swamped by a torrential rainstorm, with wind gusts as high as 40 mph. Did these kids get let down by it? Not at all! There was no wind or amount of hail that could stop these little guys from running into the mud, digging for invertebrates, and darting along the estuary paths in their mission to see shorebirds. In fact, one kid, shivering under a shelter, looked up at me with a big toothy smile, and proudly exclaimed, “Lu, you know normally I’m an indoors person, but I could stay out here for hours! I might need a tent, though, but anyways–I could be here all day long!”
Well, that’s all, folks! For now.