Shorebirdonia

2009 April 27
by David J. Ringer

DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — Saturday, Debbie Hatfield and I birded Richland Creek WMA (about 90 minutes southeast of Dallas) and surrounding areas. We got about 95 species for the day, including many returning migrants like Baltimore and Orchard Oriole, Indigo and Painted Buntings, Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, and Dickcissel.

Shorebirding was grand in the WMA’s north unit. Wilson’s Phalaropes are beautiful and charismatic:

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In phalaropes, females (right) are the more brightly colored sex. The bird on the left appears too dull even for a breeding male, so I think it’s still (partly?) in nonbreeding plumage. But I don’t know what, if anything, that means about its sex.

Calidris peeps are not so striking, but I really like working them over, analyzing subtle plumage and structural features. We had all five of the species I usually call “peeps” — Least, Semipalmated, Western, Baird’s, and White-rumped Sandpipers.

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Three peeps! From left to right: Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper. Note that the White-rump’s folded primaries project well past the tail.

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Three Least Sandpipers on the left. Western Sandpiper in right foreground. White-rumped Sandpiper in upper right.

We had a chance to study dowitchers too, which I have always found to be particularly challenging. In Texas, we have the tundra-breeding Long-billed Dowitcher and two subspecies of the taiga-breeding Short-billed Dowitcher (central hendersoni and eastern griseus) as migrants and winter residents.

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This is a Long-billed Dowitcher. Several of this bird’s scapular and covert feathers show broad, blunt white tips. The white marks are confined to the ends of the feathers and do not travel up the sides, resulting in a contrasty black-and-white pattern.

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These birds are the midst of molt, showing a mosaic of dull basic feathers and bright alternate feathers. The feathers on the sides of the breast have black bars and white fringes, characteristic of Long-billed Dowitcher, and some of the scapular and covert feathers that have been molted show strong white bars on the tips.

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Note this bird’s very heavily marked neck and breast, another feature of Long-billed Dowitchers.

Cin-Ty Lee and Andrew Birch did some very detailed work with dowitchers a couple of years ago (two versions: New advances in the field identification of dowitchers and Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers (PDF)). This article is good too. I’m struggling to assimilate all of that stuff, but overlapping bell curves, feather wear, subspecific variation (in the case of Short-billed), and difficult structural variations leave my head aching.

I didn’t identify any Short-billeds among the dowitchers I saw and photographed on Saturday. While researching the problem, I found this gallery of alternate-plumaged hendersoni Short-billed Dowitchers. The photographs are spectacular, and they show very well some of the key plumage features of this taxon, which is the most similar to Long-billed Dowitcher in breeding plumage.

We had lots of other good water and marsh birds, including five Tricolored Herons, a Common Moorhen, several calling Soras, ibises, and most of the other herons and egrets. Ducks are mostly gone; Blue-winged Teal are still around along with a handful of shovelers, and we had a single male Lesser Scaup. Debbie spotted a lone male Yellow-headed Blackbird flying across the marsh. He seemed to be missing his tail.

We also had four Hooded Mergansers, a male and three females. The females kept flying up to a Wood Duck nest box, squabbling with the male Wood Duck. The female Wood Duck emerged from the box, and she and the male flew off, leaving the mergansers to perch atop the house and check out the entry hole. I didn’t see any of them actually go into the box. The TOS Handbook of Texas Birds notes that although Hooded Mergansers are typically only winter residents in Texas, there have been a few reports of females laying eggs in Wood Duck nests or nesting in boxes themselves. I don’t know whether something like that could be going on here, or whether the females are still headed north and just getting excited along the way.

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And now for something completely different. This is quite possibly the worst photograph ever taken of a Swainson’s Warbler! But a Swainson’s Warbler it is (actually taken last week on another visit to Richland Creek).

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Related posts:

  1. Birds out my office window
  2. Beached gannet and shorebirds in July
  3. Sora galora
  4. Blowin’ in the wind
3 Responses
  1. April 27, 2009

    Very nice, esp. the action photo.

    I did some birding on Saturday and Sunday too. I saw a Pileated Woodpecker and dozens of cattle egrets, among others.

    Also, two baby emus and their parents–but they were captive on a 160 acre pen.

  2. April 28, 2009

    Thanks for sharing these photos and links. Sometimes identifying shorebirds can be a daunting task for me.

  3. May 1, 2009

    Great post, David! I’m a medical student who recently got into birding (about a year ago), and I’m very impressed by your blog!

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