Dateline September 11, 2012:
I haven’t written a birding story for a long time, so here I go.
Last Tuesday, September 11, 2012, I set out to do a Shorebird Big Day. My previous experience with a Shorebird Big Day, was an unplanned affair when I got 18 species of shorebirds in the cane fields of Pam Beach County and decided to head to Fort DeSoto for some coastal species. I ended that day with 27 species of shorebirds. This time a Shorebird Big Day was in my mind from the start of the day.
On a given day in late August in Florida, you could get 25-26 species of shorebirds simply by birding the cane fields and hitting the west coast for salt pipers. To get to the magic number of 30, you must get some of those rare but regular species e.g. Buff-breasted, Upland, Golden plover, Wilson’s phalarope, Long-billed curlew, or, better yet, rarities like Ruff, Hudsonian godwit, Curlew sandpiper, etc. The day before, I found 20 species of shorebirds in Palm Beach County during my surveys. I was aided by Tropical Storm Isaac which dumped considerable amounts of water in the cane fields. Fields that would have been drained a couple weeks ago were just now getting back to shorebird-friendly levels. The sod farms were just peeking out from under their blanket of water. Late migrating shorebirds were taking advantage of this abundance. Two fields in particular hosted thousands of birds, many of which were Blue-winged teal and wading birds. One sod farm hosted Wilson’s phalarope, Buff-breasted sandpiper, and Am. Golden-plover. These were three important key species. American avocets were also present, a species not always easy to find on the west coast, setting the stage for a run at magic number 30. Bunche Beach lay about two hours away. At least nine species could be added to the 20 found in the cane fields. One more and I would make 30. The tides at Bunche Beach were scheduled to recede in the afternoon. This would give me time to survey the fields, get 20 species of shorebirds again, and head to the coast to catch Bunche Beach in its glory.
The Big Day started to look like a Big Dud. Six Mile Sod Farm held four key species the day before. On this day it looked as if it held zero. No sign of golden-plover, Buff-breasted, phalarope, or Avocet. I had seen more Avocets elsewhere, but without the other three keys, the shorebird Big Day was doomed. I eventually found a golden-plover and an Upland sandpiper. That was one of three and a replacement for another. Still I saw no sign of the two Wilson’s phalaropes and the four Buff-breasted sandpipers from the day before. Next to me, on the road, was a Long-billed dowitcher. Or was it? Actually, it was a Wilson’s snipe! Bonus! I’ve always thought that doing a Shorebird Big Day ca. Sep 10 is best because of just this thing. You have a better chance at things like snipe, White-rumped sandpiper, Buff-breasted sandpiper, and even maybe an early Dunlin, while not losing out on species found in August. The limiting factor is that there are usually not many or any flooded fields at that time. Thank you Isaac! Now if I could find a Buff-breasted and a Wilson’s phalarope, I’d head to Bunche Beach and breeze my way to 30. If only. I searched the King Sod Farm of US 27 with no success. My surveys this day brought me near one of the major flooded fields, but no phalaropes were near enough to find. I left the cane fields with two missing species and two new species for a net of zero.
I reached Bunche Beach and the tide was already on its way out. I may have missed the Long-billed curlew which likes to feed in the water as the tide recedes. Birds were everywhere and I quickly added Willet and Sanderling. I decided to walk to the east first as the curlew had been seen in that direction recently. I scanned both directions first and added many new species. Wilson’s plover, Piping plover, Red knot, Marbled godwit, were new for the day. On a side note, I eventually pulled a Cliff swallow from the Barn swallows for my #198 in Lee County. Lee was the last of the southern counties to add Cliff Swallow. Long-billed curlew and Snowy plover would make 200 if I could find them. I counted in my head; I would only be at 29 shorebirds for the day with the rest of the regulars and these two. Snowy plovers usually do not show at Bunche Beach, so I would have to go elsewhere, or skip it, leave Bunche Beach with 28, and hope for two more in the cane fields. Wilson’s phalarope and Buff-breasted sandpipers were there late in the day yesterday. Maybe they would be back again this evening. I walked to the east end of the beach and saw no sign of curlew among the masses of Willets and other shorebirds. There were no godwits either, a species with which Long-billed curlew often associates. A Long-billed curlew is literally the biggest shorebird on the beach and would be obvious at any distance, rendering the long walk unnecessary, but I was hoping for an early Dunlin or something even more interesting. Nothing was forthcoming. The common birds pushed me to 27 shorebird species, tying my personal best, but a long way from the target of 30 species. Lack of curlew was a cause for worry. I would need to leave the area and walk a bit for Snowy plover. Without at least one more species on Bunche Beach, I would not have the time to go for Snowy plover and go back to the sod farm for two species to make the magic number 30. Where the heck is that curlew? It’s not like it can hide on a mud flat. I walked all the way to the tidal creek to the west and scanned all the way to the causeway. Nothing! As I walked, I had a feeling I should check through the plovers on this one little strip. A beautiful male Snowy plover presented itself for #28 on the day, a new record, and #199 lifetime in Lee! Now I could go back to the fields with the hope for 30. If only the curlew would show, it would be so much easier to get one than two more at the cane fields. I had a big decision to make. Do I take my new record and be satisfied with that, then head over to Sanibel to try for Lee County #200, or do I head back to PB County and try for the long shot at 30 shorebirds? I got back to the parking area and decided to take one last look to the west. What was that? I thought I saw a large shorebird with a honkin’ ibis bill. It dipped below a small rise in the flats. I stayed on it and eventually the Long-billed curlew showed itself! #200 in Lee at last and now a much better shot at 30 shorebirds, maybe even 31.
A little over two hours later, I was at the Six Mile Sod Farm in Palm Beach County. It took about 20 minutes, but I finally found a Buff-breasted sandpiper for #30. I briefly considered heading down Brown’s Farm Road to try to ferret out a Wilson’s phalarope or Ruff in the waning daylight, but decided 30 was enough. What a day! I knew the stars were aligning when the fields had so much water and so many species and the tides were right for an afternoon visit to Bunche Beach. Had I shirked my responsibilities and simply gone birding all morning at the cane fields, I might have gotten a couple more species and not needed to come back to Palm Beach at all. I’m not complaining though, I’ll take what I can get. I may never get that special opportunity again.