Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rare shorebird visits Florida

Why is it that I always receive the calls about the rare birds when I'm leaving the state? It was my friend Bob, "Did you hear?!?..." An incredibly rare and amazingly sharp-plumaged, adult male Greater Sand-Plover had been found at Huguenot Memorial Park in Jacksonville, FL (about six hours away from the Fort Myers Airport sadly)!

Greater Sand Plovers are a desert-breeding bird across central Eurasia, that winters along the southern coast of Asia, western Africa, Australia, and the islands between. How this bird made it to Florida was any one's guess, but that is one of the things about birding that can be so exciting. These critters have wings and can show up just about anywhere. There was only one prior record of this species being seen in North America anywhere. A dull-plumaged winter record from Bolina Lagoon, California found on 29 January 2001 and delighting visitors for months there after.

I am a lister, but am not a rampant lister. For example as I write this a rare Zenaida Dove (would be lifer) is being seen in Key Largo not too terribly far away. However, I'm able to remain focused and will not be heartbroken if I'm not able to steal away to see it. However, there are some birds like really colorful flashy shorebirds for example, that I place higher on my personal "must see" list, so this was a bit of a painful phone call to take, knowing I would not have the opportunity to chase his bird for at least a week. Being that this was the still during migration I knew it would be unlikely that this bird would linger for months as the California wintering bird did.

Common Tern digiscoped w/ Leica D-lux 4, & APO Televid 88 spotting scope
Fortunately, the bird did stick around and as soon as I was able to steal away, my 10 year old son and I dashed to Jacksonville on an early morning dash arriving at Huguenot a bit after 10 AM. On the way in to the park we noted a bunch of cool birds but didn't stop to enjoy many of these. There was a breeding-plumaged Red-necked Phalarope (another rarity albeit at a much lesser level), and many species of gulls and terns present, but we kept driving into the park in search of this (likely) once in a lifetime visitant.

Black Tern digiscoped at Huguenot Park, May 09.

I noted my first Black Terns of the year here as well, but again didn't stop to admire these birds right now. It would have to wait until I'd either found or given up on the Sand-Plover (and was hoping for the former).

Black Tern digiscoped at the edge of the Channel @ Huguenot 5/09

We'd never been to Huguenot and really didn't know where we were going and the map didn't seem to match the roads I saw. I was wondering what to do next when I saw them 40-50 birders lined up with spotting scopes all trained on a nearby sand flat. Well that removed some of my worries that I wasn't in the right spot but it also meant I was going to be shorted on the opportunity to try and locate this rare bird on my own. We had to drive by the pack of birders to reach the parking area another 1/4 mile or so away but I was able to note the bird's distinctive orangish breast band with my naked eye as we drove slowly past!

adult male Greater Sand-Plover digiscoped w/ Leica APO Televid 82 mm scope

Moments later I had my scope set up alongside numerous other birders and began happily snapping images and video of this spectacular bird as it dashed back and forth feeding on Fiddler Crabs. It was a similar in structure to the nearby Wilson's Plovers but larger, yet smaller than the lingering Black-bellied Plovers that also fed on the flats!

Greater Sand-Plover digiscoped w/ Leica D-Lux 4 & APO Televid 82 mm scope

We stayed on for over an hour before deciding to find our celebratory ice cream (a long heralded birding tradition - Roger Tory Peterson even liked to track down a good ice cream after a good day of birding). As we ate ice cream on the beach I scanned offshore with my scope. All week people had been reporting Storm-petrels, Phalaropes, and Shearwaters from shore all along the east coast of FL. Some present viewing the plover even claimed seeing all three species of Eastern Storm-Petrels near the breakwater at high tide.

Arctic Tern digiscoped feeding in the channel near Huguenot

It was now near low tide and about 1/4 - 1/2 mile off shore I could see gulls feeding on a rip, and below them a long line of floating sargassum weed. Once in a while a small black shape 1/2 the size of the gulls would appear and disappear behind the waves sailing over the weedline. Even at 50x I could only tell these were likely the Storm-petrels in question but there was no way I could ID these specks from here. But in a stroke of luck a flash of black and white darted across my field of view and I quickly switched to binoculars to see a closer Storm-Petrel in with the surfers in the closer waves. I watched as it arced high above one wave, banked and swept back down without flapping. Judging by its seemingly unforked tail, broad white rump, and flight pattern, I identified this bird as a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel (the least likely species of the three - Wilson's, Leach's, and Band-rumped- to be seen from shore). Yet there it was sweeping up and arcing down. Nope the feet were not apparent behind the tail, this looked like a Band-rumped! As I said before these birds have wings and this was a rare treat, seldom seen without travelling by boat far offshore to the true pelagic waters.

Time had come now to turn back and head back toward home (5.5 hours southwest) but not before enjoying one more rare sighting. As I drove south back toward the highway I spotted three terns bounding over rips at the confluence of Two Sister's kayak launch. I viewed with binoculars... dark gray below, thin trailing edge to the outer flight feathers, short totally orange bill, and rounded head... these were Arctic Terns. Rarely seen in Florida and typically offshore.

It just goes to show you never know what you might see, part of why we all love birding so much!

1 comment:

  1. Jeff...
    Great blog that I'm just now reading (6/13/09). It may start a new tradition for my husband and I...celebratory ice cream cones after a good day of birding.

    It also made me think how I would have loved to have gone birding with someone when I was 10...think of how much more I would know now! Your son is a lucky boy.

    Thanks for your insights!
    Joyce Stefancic