For the Birds Radio Program: Shorebirds

Original Air Date: May 25, 1992

Sometimes a good sense of smell isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—especially when you’re birding near a sewage pond.

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Ah, May! That fragrant month when grass is lush, when hyacinths are in bloom, when Cedar Waxwings and hummingbirds hover about apple blossoms, when shorebirds and birders are drawn to… sewage ponds. Apparently some olfactory sensibilities are more refined than others.

Some of the finest, if least aesthetic, birding to be had in spring is at mud flats and sewage ponds. Those birds picking through the muck and sludge are sandpipers and plovers. These elegant migrants are hollow-boned, slender and delicate, and yet are among the longest-distance travelers in the world. The smallest of all, the Least Sandpiper, which weighs less than a Christmas card, breeds on the Arctic tundra and winters in Central and South America. The largest, the Hudsonian Godwit, with lovely upswept bill and long slender neck, weighs from 6 1/2 ounces to just under a pound. If Hudsonian Godwits traveled by airline rather than under their own power, their frequent flyer mileage would bring Northwest airlines to bankruptcy. They nest in subarctic Canada, spend late summer on the shores of Hudson Bay, and then head for Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego.

Shorebirds enjoy two summers every year, catching more sun rays than virtually any other creatures on earth. Of course, that also means they’re exposed to more ultraviolet light than other creatures, and may end up suffering long-term health effects with the thinning ozone layer. Most birds probably don’t have to worry about skin cancers with their full-body feather protection, but it’s quite possible that eye problems could result from prolonged exposure to unusually high levels of ultraviolet rays. So far, little avian ophthalmologists haven’t published any studies on the subject.

Among the most common and easily seen of all the shorebirds are the Killdeer and the Spotted Sandpiper. Most people are familiar with the Killdeer’s sweet noisy call. This striking plover, with its two black breast bands vividly contrasting with its white breast, rich brown back and rufous rump, graces many pastures, meadows, and expansive lawns. The smaller Spotted Sandpiper is our common summer sandpiper of rocky or sandy beaches and breakwaters and fishing piers. The Spotted Sandpiper’s habit of frequently bobbing its pointy tail gives it the nickname “teetertail.” When it flies, its wings form a taut, downward arc, stiffly carrying the bird from danger.

The rarest shorebird, which may actually be extinct, is the Eskimo Curlew. This bird bred in northern Canada and Alaska and gathered on migration through the prairies in such tremendous numbers that it was nicknamed the “prairie pigeon.” Unfortunately, it was shot by hunters just as extensively as the Passenger Pigeon. Eskimo Curlews have not been recorded in Minnesota or Wisconsin since the 1800s. There exist two specimens from Wisconsin, one taken in Racine County in the 1870s, the other from Horicon Marsh in 1903.

Lake Superior provides Northland birders with a wealth of springtime shorebirds, including some that are very rare in the inland United States. Whimbrels, which are close relatives of the Eskimo Curlew, Hudsonian and Marbled Godwits, and American Avocet turn up in wetlands near the big lake. Piping Plovers used to nest all along Lake Superior’s sandy beaches, though development, off road vehicles, picnickers, and dogs have destroyed so much of their habitat and their nests that these birds are now on the endangered species list. Although Killdeers and Spotted Sandpipers are with us all summer, most shorebirds will soon vanish into the Canadian wilderness. So head on out to your nearest sewage treatment pond and enjoy these exotic wanderers while you can.