My shorebird surveys wouldn’t have been the adventure it was if it wasn’t for my volunteers. Rain or hail (slight exaggeration, there were a few sunny days) my volunteers stuck it out with me because as they’ve said, “After all, we are Alaskans.” Translation: 40mph winds and rain won’t really faze them.
My volunteers consisted of birders, high school students, people new to birding, fishermen and fisherwomen, locals and out of towners. I appreciated their enthusiasm to learn from me about how to identify shorebirds and the survey protocol, but I also learned a great deal from their experiences and especially from their questions although I still haven’t come up with the answer to a 5 year-old’s question of why sandpipers don’t wear rain pants on rainy days…
Other questions I got:
Why do some birds stand on only one leg? Because they like to play hopscotch. (Just kidding!) One theory is that birds stand on one leg to conserve body heat. Many birds even roost on one leg. I read in this article that to keep from falling down while roosting, birds will use all their body weight to press down on a tendon in their heel, which in turn helps strengthen their toe grip on the branch.
How do you remember which birds you counted? I can’t remember each and every one, but that’s why I count fast and if I have to walk during the survey, I keep in mind which way the birds are so that I’m moving away from the ones I’ve already counted.
Why do these shorebirds fly in groups? It helps them look bigger from birds of prey, so they’re not as likely to get eaten.
How far do these birds travel? The Least Sandpiper can travel from as far as Chile and Brazil.
It was a lot of fun to watch the shorebirds go from 50 to 25,000 in the span of two weeks. Watching them fly in groups whirring through the sky was like watching a school of fish swim through water. Though it also made counting them a lot more of a challenge.
Every day brought with it a new number or a new shorebird. We saw black-bellied plovers, dunlins, western and least sandpipers, whimbrels, dowitchers, yellowlegs, Hudsonian godwits, semi-palmated plovers, a few swooping peregrine falcons.
The shorebirds have since moved on but while I was at Montague Island, there was a lone semi-palmated plover on the beach that stopped to say hello. I’m happy that some have stuck around.