A Great Story about the Lesser Sand Plover
Matt's advice to birders is sound wisdom. As an educator, I have learned flexibility and patience in the classroom, and that experience has successfully translated into my Big Year adventure in more ways than one.
700 is a big number. In days it totals nearly two years. In minutes, almost twelve hours. It takes just over four and a half minutes to count to 700. (Believe me, I timed it) I remember the first 700 page book I read- the fourth book in the popular wizard series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That took forever!
Many birders aspire to seeing 700 species of birds in North America in their lifetime; only a small percentage of those strive to see that many species in a year. I feel incredibly blessed when I think about all that I've seen this year. I look through my Sibley Guide to Birds of North America with the same nostalgia of flipping through a photo album of my childhood. Each bird has a story, and hundreds of sightings live in vibrant color and motion in my memory, and also on my memory cards preserved in pixels for future study, learning, enjoyment, and sharing. The birds in my book I haven't seen hold nearly as much enjoyment as the ones I have, knowing that they too are out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.
This year for me is about collecting those stories. seeing the birds, meeting new people, and understanding better why birds hold a mysterious allure over people. As I try to figure that out, I learn more about myself through my fascination with birds, an interest I've held onto since childhood. Seeing new birds has a magical power, transforming a one-dimensional painting or photograph from books I’ve read since the third grade, turning each bird into a living three-dimensional living organism. I experience unspeakable joy, wonder, and amazement every time this happens. That is a small part of what drives me to see new birds. However, not all birds are created equal.
Recently a Facebook friend left a comment on my page, questioning my decision to go back to Barrow instead of chasing an Amazon Kingfisher in Laredo, Texas. I understand what doing a Big Year must look like from the outside. I’ve been there- eagerly reading blog posts of another’s birding adventure, hoping they get to see each and every rarity that popped up around North America every week. For me it's not all about the checklist or greedily gobbling up every rarity the day after it shows up on the rare bird alert. I choose to chase quality birds- birds that intrigue me, that I have a history with, or a strong desire to see. The reasons vary by bird, some species I've dreamed of seeing for years. Some birds are familiar friends from my experiences abroad, while others I've never even heard about. I chose 700 as a number to aim for, because it was attainable, includes all of the regularly-occurring avifauna and then some. Attaining my goal so early, and still having lots of year left brought on a new set of questions I had to ask myself, about my motives and goals. I realized I may never be in this position again, with the opportunity to see these birds, travel more, and continue interviewing birders. I still had more information to gather on the birder-front, and so it felt right to keep chasing birds. As I approach 750 species, and the threshold of the recently-set ABA record (pre-2016) I'm not slowing down. However, I am carefully choosing which rarities to chase.
For me, an Ivory Gull holds more allure and mystique than an Amazon Kingfisher. I've seen the latter in Belize, frequenting the tangled vegetation and snags along the winding Lamanai River in Belize, which I motored down in a small speedboat on my way to explore ancient Mayan ruins. On the other hand, I’ve only been graced by the presence of an Ivory Gull once in Missouri/Illinois along the Mississippi River. The snow-white bird almost glowed in daylight, floating around a dreary gray palette of his concrete dam perch, the cloudy sky, and murky Mississippi currents. He floated around on pearly wings, searching for food in an unfamiliar habitat. The entire drive home, this bird lingered on my mind. Part of me was excited to have just seen an Ivory Gull, however seeing this one so far away from the Arctic, I knew the health of the bird was in question and it would likely not make the trip North again. Usually after encountering a new species, one will mark a box on their checklist. However, when I got home I added a new box to my bucket list: See Ivory Gull in the Arctic.
A Story of the Mongolian Plover
One story that I’d like to share with you is of the Mongolian Plover. Now, a keen birder will be quick to point out that this bird has been re-named the Lesser sand plover, which further may be split and re-named the Mongolian Plover yet again. Taxonomy is confusing, so I'll try not to get into taxonomical history and tell the story more simply, risking inaccurate taxonomic naming as I explain my history with this species.
The first time I looked through a field guide slow enough to notice this shorebird, it was called a Mongolian Plover, and so that’s what I’ll call it. (Nay-sayers can grumble at me later, as I call Long-tailed duck Oldsquaw, too. I learned birds from old bird books, before names were changed to what they are today, so I still have a hair of "old-school" engrained in me.
It took years for me to mature into a birder who appreciated shorebirds. I don’t think I looked at many shorebirds as a younger birder, except for the Killdeer, whose alarming broken-wing ploy always lured me into looking for the cryptically-colored eggs laid on the bare ground in a shallow scrape. The first Killdeer nest I found was on the playground in third grade. However, that's another bird and a different story...
I first noticed the Mongolian Plover in a bird book as an early teen. This handsome shorebird jumped off the page, sporting a dapper red vest and Zorro-esque black mask. The name “Mongolian Plover” immediately captured my imagination. I pictured this bird scurrying out of the way across the Mongolian steppes, flushing in front of armies of horses carrying iron-clad Mongol soldiers galloping at breakneck speeds into battle. I never dreamed I’d travel to Mongolia in my early twenties, and stare up at the expansive sky which mirrored the landscape in its vastness and texture. I traveled around the country on horseback, by camel, and hanging out of old Soviet-era vans, birding lakes, mudflats, deserts, and high-alpine steppes, and was successful finding one of the few Mongolian birds I knew about before I set foot in the country. While abroad I saw a Greater sand plover, which would remain the only sand-plover on my life list until 2010, when I had great comparisons of both Greater and Lesser side-by-side along Mida Creek near Watamu, Kenya, noting overall size and shape of the bill as a key separator between the two species.
Early in my Big Year, I stopped on the same shorebird page, remembering my time in Mongolia as I mulled over the name sand plover. A twinge of curiosity shot through me as I considered the fact that I may actually see one of these handsome devils if things worked out this year. I mentally added it to my 'must see' list, and did some investigating as to what it would take to see one in North America. I found that the most reliable spot to see sand plovers was in the Spring and fall on St. Lawrence island in Alaska, near the town of Gambell. It seemed Lesser Sand Plover was almost annual there, occurring each Fall in small numbers. For most of my Big Year, I believed Gambell to be out of my reach, and I avoided believing I could actually go there during spring migration, as I had committed funds I didn’t have and time to venturing to Attu, which I voted the “harder to get to” category of Alaskan birding locations. The Fall presented a different story, and with the help of family, friends, and the birding community, I raised some funds to get up to Gambell to kick off a Fall birding adventure. Despite one report of a sand-plover, nobody could re-locate the bird, and rumors swirled as strongly as the north wind blew, discouraging many migrants from making it across from Russia.
On October 2, 2016 two Arizona birders found a Lesser Sand-plover at Round Cedar lake near Flagstaff, Arizona. After no confirmed records of this species found this Fall in Alaska, this was a good bird, and one I very much had hoped to see. To be honest, my memories of seeing this bird in Mongolia and again in Kenya had faded, and throughout the year I poured over the plates in Rare Birds of North America, and each time I looked at it I wanted to see one again. As soon as I had the chance, I flew to Los Angeles, rented a car, and drove to Arizona to see it. I'd arrived 24 hours too late. The bird had gone.
Fortuitously, I received a second-chance while birding with Laura Keene a week later in California. We'd finished our day's search for the Yellow-green Vireo reported on Pt. Reyes, and we both drove to San Jose so she could return her rental car and we'd carpool in my rental car, which I'd already extended. After leaving the Bay area, I checked Facebook and saw a post of a "possible" Lesser sand-plover from California- right where we'd just been! The photos sure looked good for Mongolian plover, and after returning her car we headed back north to be in position to find the bird early the next morning.
A cold breeze rolled off the sand dunes toward the Pacific Ocean as I hustled down the beach before sunrise the following morning. I was outpacing another birder, who was hurrying to keep up and keep a conversation with me. Coincidentally, we'd both left the parking lot at the same time heading north along the beach to the GPS points of yesterday's exciting discovery by Matt Lau- a beautiful Mongolian Plover, which I determined from photos was a different individual than the Arizona bird the week before. I wasn't trying to ditch him, but we had different walking speeds, and I'd learned two things this year: first, birders give much better interviews after they see the bird, and recording an interview in the wind pretty much defeats the purpose of recording it. I've listened to dozens of interviews at night, realizing the wind was my main subject, and I'd lost the coherence of spoken words, unable to type out and preserve the wisdom and humor I'd heard earlier in the day.
Within the hour, I was still weaving my way up the beach, trying to spot any signs of Snowy Plovers. I saw Sanderlings running around frantically along the shoreline, scoped Scoters diving in the choppy surf, and admired the subtle differences between the ravens and crows which both gorged on the tidal feast left on the beach from the night before. I continued to walk at a brisk pace, prepared to hike 5 or 6 miles along the beach if necessary, intent on doing so quickly, as Laura was working on her computer in the car, and we had a Yellow-green Vireo to search for next. As the sun's golden rays arced over the eastern horizon, illuminating the beach in front of me, I spotted several small round white shapes darting across the beach ahead. I'd found the Snowy Plovers! The plumage of this species has evolved over time to perfectly match the color of the sand, making them near-invisible to predators when they crouch low in their burrows, becoming just another lump in the contour of the shoreline. I counted over 30 Snowy plovers, and with them was a larger, darker lump facing away from me. I'd spotted the bird!
I pointed it out to my beach-walking compadre, and we got great views of it in the scope. Drinking in the field marks, studying the short compact bill, creamy-colored throat and buffy eye stripe. The bird appeared at home on the beach, nestled in among foreign species unknown to her. I quickly updated the Facebook thread on the bird, confirming its presence today at the same location, and I sent Matt (the finder) a brief Facebook message- he was already on his way. I stuck around to interview him for The Birding Project, and share with others who were en-route the joy of seeing this bird. Birds are better enjoyed with others. After asking Matt for imput, I joined a couple others and laid down on the cold sand, slowly inching toward the flock. There's a fine line between getting "the shot" and disturbing the birds, and Matt had described to me the visual cues to look for to know if my presence was disturbing their routine and behavior. I watched carefully from eye level nearly 20 meters away, as the birds preened contently and sleepily lazed in the sun with their eyes half-shut. There's no fooling a plover, who always has one eye out for danger. I could tell something was in the air as the birds all suddenly flattened and buried deeper into the sand. As if on cue, a Merlin appeared overhead, and decided that an opportune meal didn't exist below on the beach, and rapidly flapped downwind along the coast. I continued to study and photograph the plover, who relaxed once the falcon was out of sight (at a much greater distance than I thought). She stretched her leg out and extended her long wing, revealing primary feathers edged with white, with dark brown, nearly-black tips. This bird appeared to me to be undergoing some stage of molt, as evidenced by the photo to follow. Notice the lighter gray feathers on the middle of the wing- clearly a different generation of feathers than those at the top of the wing.
After a few others arrived, and with several interviews complete, I packed up and headed back down the beach, to meet Laura and do some birding. To some, this was a life bird, or another tick on their California county list. To me, it was seeing an old friend in the New World; a traveler who has spent many months traversing land and sea in search of something, much like myself.
As I walked back down the beach, I thought about the day. Laura and I had some birding and lots of driving ahead of us, as the possibility of getting offshore from San Diego was growing closer in the coming days. For now, I just took a deep breath and enjoyed the morning.
THE MAN BEHIND THE PLOVER
How did you get interested in birds?
My very first encounter was with Steller’s Jays when I was camping as a kid. That moved my interest in that direction. I didn’t start birding until I got into Humboldt State University and took an ornithology class with Dr. Mark Colwell. He really got me into birds and biology and ecology, and birding itself. He influenced me to get into eBird, and I got into going out and birding more frequently, and finding rare birds, and it really caught on. It mixed being outside and looking at birds, so that’s what really got me into it.
What advice would you share with someone new to birding?
Start slow. Don’t be intimidated by all the expert and advanced birders. When I first started off, I definitely felt like I didn’t belong, but don’t let that get to you because everyone starts where you are right now. Learn everything as you go, and just go with it.
Birding is exciting... That’s a lame answer. For me it’s something that gets me away from reality.