Shorebirds are one of my greatest birding weaknesses. Not only are they one of the hardest groups of birds to master, but there also aren’t many opportunities to study and learn shorebirds in Chester County, PA where I spend the vast majority of my time. So, as part of my Recovery Big Year, I wanted to amass some shorebird knowledge and knock some lifers off my needs list. I started by spending a few minutes every night studying the photos and text of the Michael O’Brien Shorebird Guide, but was still feeling overwhelmed and perplexed by shorebirds in the field.
There’s no better way to learn birds than by birding with experts, so I marked the Delmarva Ornithological Society (DOS) shorebird trips to Bombay Hook on my calendar. When August 1st came along, I was incredibly excited for the opportunity to learn from the shorebird savvy trip leaders: Frank Rohrbacher & Andy Urquhart! My Dad kindly agreed to drive me down to Bombay Hook for the trip, as I’m still not well enough to make these kinds of trips alone (Thanks, Dad!). The trip ran from 8-12, but the sleep disturbance of waking earlier than 8am triggers my migraines, so we planned to arrive at Bombay Hook a little late for the trip, at around 9:30am.
One of the first species we observed at the refuge that morning was a pair of Tri-colored Herons who lifted from the pool at the boardwalk trail and flew at eye level only 20ft from the car towards Raymond Pool. The tri-coloreds only fueled my excitement for the rest of the day! When we found the group of 20 or more birders at the event, they had already made their way to the end of Shearness Pond– one of the later points on the driving loop– and were about ready to make their way back to the beginning of the refuge for high tide. (When it comes to coastal shorebirding, tides are everything! At low tide, there are plenty of exposed mudflats on which the birds can forage, some of which are too far out even for scope views! But at high tide, the birds are forced to move inland to feed and are both closer and easier to identify. Therefore, high tide is the opportune time to observe shorebirds in the field.) On the way back, Andy Urquhart stopped his car to take a closer look at a group of maybe 6 Short-billed Dowitchers that were probing the mud not too far from the road. My Dad and I stopped, too, and joined Andy for a few minutes. Here, Andy explained in impressive detail the subtle plumage variation between subspecies of dowitcher and the key to finding a Long-billed Dowitcher. I was so thrilled to be learning so much new information. Just a few months earlier, I didn’t know the difference between a SBDO and a Red Knot!
We set up our scopes at Raymond Pool and began searching the shorebirds for uncommon species and rarities. Frank was walking along the length of the group, answering questions and relaying new finds to the rest of the group as they appeared. Amongst the Short-billed Dowitchers, we picked out a handful of Long-billed Dowitchers– a life bird for me! Then, amidst the dowitchers, Andy Urquhart spotted a Stilt Sandpiper– another lifer!
I couldn’t believe it! 2 lifers in a matter of minutes! Once Andy had pointed out and explained the Stilt Sandpiper to us, we were able to pull out another 2 or 3 from the group of dowitchers. All the while that we were standing there scanning, there were endless streams of shorebirds, recently displaced by the rising tide, that were flying directly over our heads.
The ambience of the experience was incredible; the constant sounds of shorebirds flying to and fro mixed with the visual spectacle of thousands of birds flying in to feed was breathtaking. Not to mention, there was a group of a few hundred Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Glossy Ibis that would occasionally lift and re-position themselves, allowing us to pick out a few vagrant White Ibises! I never would have been able to pick out the Stilt Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitchers if it hadn’t been for Frank & Andy. Thank you both!
At around 12, the trip ended and my Dad and I left to head home. Instead of taking the turn to exit the refuge, we made a last-minute decision to take the driving loop a bit further toward the Allee house. We had such great luck with the shorebirds and weren’t feeling quite ready to leave just yet. As we continued along the gravel road, I spotted an adult male Northern Bobwhite just 25ft ahead! This species was one of my most-wanted birds on my Recovery Big Year hit list, and I had been lucky enough to see a female with chicks during my last visit to the refuge. What this male bobwhite did next absolutely blew my mind– it started calling! ‘Bob-whiiite! Bob-whiiite!’
The Northern Bobwhite call is the first bird call I ever learned (back in high school, we learned the calls of 20 species of ‘common’ local birds as part of an environmental science project) and this was my first time ever hearing it in real life! How amazing. What a perfect way to end such an awesome trip!
All in all we had 13 species of shorebirds, including: Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Semi-palmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Long-billed Dowitcher. Other highlights of the trip were a singing Grasshopper Sparrow, multiple adult male Blue Grosbeaks, and of course, the Northern Bobwhite. I can’t wait to be able to attend the next DOS shorebird excursion on August 29th. This time, I’m hoping for a life Godwit (of any kind) or a new sandpiper species, like Western Sandpiper. Fingers crossed!