Shorebird identification can be challenging, which is definitely the case for me; however, there’s nothing better than observing and, in my case, photographing shorebirds as they pause to feed along their fall migration routes to improve one’s identification skills. This past week or so has provided me with several such opportunities and the photos shown here include 10 of the species I observed. There were other species I saw, including Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied Plover, American Golden Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Whimbrel, but I either didn’t like the photos I made (too far away or too far away for a common species that I already have in my photo galleries), or I was unable to capture photos of them because I didn’t have my camera with me or my camera wasn’t ready to take photos when I saw the shorebirds. An example of the latter occurred on Sunday when I saw a Buff-breasted Sandpiper and an American Golden Plover, but my camera lens fogged up immediately as I took it out of the air-conditioned car and exposed it to the very hot and humid outside conditions. By the time my lens cleared up, I had missed my photo opportunity!
Tollgate Pond in Hamilton, Ontario can good a very good place to observe shorebird migration, but it can also be challenging from a photographic perspective including, but not restricted to: long distance to subjects, poor lighting conditions, poor direction of light and distracting background elements, but as the two photos of a Baird’s Sandpiper above and below prove, at least in my opinion, circumstances can be favourable. Here the shorebird was reasonably close, the direction of light was very good. Additionally, the backgrounds are simple, making the subject pop out.
Note the long primaries that project well past the tertials and tail tip of this juvenile. The plain face has dark lores (best seen in the photo below).
The Least Sandpiper is the smallest shorebird (see below). This image, also made at Tollgate Pond, is one of my favourite photos of this species in my library. The photo shooting conditions were essentially the same as they were for the Baird’s Sandpiper.
In addition to its small size, other key characteristics include short tail and wings (compare vs Baird’s Sandpiper), a finer slightly drooped bill and yellowish legs. The yellow legs are not always easily discernible out in the filed, especially when an individual is foraging on open mudflats, which can make the legs look much darker.
The next photo is of an attractive juvenile Sanderling and it really highlights the mostly white on the face and underparts. The fresh plumage with distinct black checkering in upperparts and black central crown stripe is seen well here.
The image below is of a molting adult Sanderling. Note the buffy/reddish wash on the throat and a mix of breeding and nonbreeding (pale gray) feathers above. Also worth noting is the lack of a hind toe, which is a key characteristic of Sanderlings, assuming of course that you are close enough to view such details.
The two images of a Wilson’s Phalarope included here proved more difficult to photograph, primarily due to the subject foraging quite far away. Nonetheless, it is a good bird to see in this area and demonstrates one of the reasons I enjoy photographing birds. I have not seen many Wilson’s Phalaropes and at my viewing distance, I was not at all sure what I was looking at. I thought it might be a phalarope of some type, but it was only once I returned home and compared my photos with my guide books was I able to have some confidence in identifying it as a Wilson’s Phalarope, and subsequently I was able to get confirmation from Len Manning, one of my birding friends locally. Without the pictures, which I could study and share with other birders, I would never have known with certainty what I was looking at. I would also like to give a shout out to Mark Dennis, a good friend of mine now living in Nova Scotia and an excellent birder who has helped me immensely with bird identification numerous times over the years we have known each other. I'm sure I've tried his patience on many occasions as I attempt to sharpen my ID skills.
The image below is helpful in that it provides a good size comparison with a known species (Lesser Yellowlegs), which is shown on the right side. Note that Wilson's Phalarope is smaller and whiter than Lesser Yellowlegs and its legs are shorter.
The next image, which is heavily cropped thus reducing the sharpness and resolution quality, is of a distant Wilson’s Phalarope. Nonetheless one can easily see the medium-length needle thin bill. I believe this individual is a juvenile as it has retained its dark tertials and coverts from juvenal plumage. This bird swished its bill from side to side constantly as it foraged, much like an Avocet would.
Semipalmated Sandpiper (shown below) is slightly larger than Least Sandpiper. Its bill is straighter and its tip is more blunt. The legs are dark olive in colour although they often appear almost black when covered by mud.
Stilt Sandpiper (see image below) is slightly smaller than dowitchers with longer legs, a long fine-tipped bill (but shorter than a dowitcher’s), with a smaller head and body.
Pectoral Sandpiper is attenuated in structure with primaries equal with its tail tip. The bill, as is the case here, may have a dull orange-yellow base. Its legs are yellowish in appearance.
What the next two photos lack in image quality they more than make up in interest (from my perspective) due to the fact Red Knots are not that common locally in late August (or any other time of year). Larger than a Pectoral Sandpiper and about equal to dowitchers, it is long winged with short legs and medium-length bill. A few helpful distinguishing characteristics are on display including: yellow feet, pale gray nonbreeding plumage and its horizontal stance. I wish I could have obtained much closer views, but that was not to be the case on this occasion.
New Gallery Photos Added Gallery
Least Sandpiper Sandpipers, Phalaropes and Allies (Part 2)
Sanderling Sandpipers, Phalaropes and Allies (Part 2)
Least Sandpiper Sandpipers, Phalaropes and Allies (Part 2)
Baird's Sandpiper Sandpipers, Phalaropes and Allies (Part 2)
Red Knot Sandpipers, Phalaropes and Allies (Part 2)
O’Brien, Michael, Crossley, Richard, Karlson, Kevin, 2006. The Shorebird Guide, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, New York