Since the Volunteer State has no access to the sea, it is sometimes amazing how many birds affiliated with coastal areas can be found if you know when and where to look.
A recent seven-day visit to coastal South Carolina reinforced the romance of a group of related birds known collectively as shorebirds or, in a somewhat more adventuresome context, “wind birds.” This diverse family of birds range in size from sparrow-sized sandpipers to larger species such as American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew and Marbled Godwit.
During daily visits to Huntington Beach State Park, located within five minutes of my brother’s new home on Pawleys Island, S.C., I observed plenty of these “wind birds.” I saw a range of species, including Wilson’s Plover, Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Sanderling, Least Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Spotted Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Dunlin and even the gangly Black-necked Stilt.
Known as “wind birds” for the propensity of many members of this extended family to stage long-distance migrations, some species fly through Northeast Tennessee each spring and fall as they migrate to and from distant nesting grounds.
I have seen several species — Wilson’s Snipe, Greater Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper — in the region this spring. Their stays are usually of brief duration as they are eager to push farther north. Many of them will not stop until they reach the edge of the Arctic tundra.
While I was enjoying seeing a wide range of shorebirds in South Carolina, two Stilt Sandpipers put in a rare appearance in Northeast Tennessee. I hated to miss them. I’ve only seen one other Stilt Sandpiper in the region, and that observation took place back in 2000 at Austin Springs on Boone Lake.
The Stilt Sandpipers were found by Brookie and Jean Potter on the Watauga River at Rasar’s Farm in Elizabethton. The couple reported that it was their first spring sighting of Stilt Sandpipers, as well as their first Carter County sighting of this species. The photo at the start of the column, provided by Jean Potter, shows the two Stilt Sandpipers bordered by a pair of Greater Yellowlegs.
Stilt Sandpipers making migration stops in Tennessee still have a long way to travel. These shorebirds nest on the Arctic tundra beyond the tree line. Wet sedge-meadows with raised ridges and hummocks provide nesting habitat. After the nesting season they fly south as far as northern South America and can be found at fresh water ponds, marshes, lagoons and flooded fields.
This medium-sized sandpiper stands out from most of the sandpipers in its size range. It has long, greenish legs, as well as a long neck and bill, which is drooped at the tip. In breeding plumage, this shorebird has a distinctive chestnut cheek patch.
During my South Carolina stay, I didn’t encounter any Stilt Sandpipers. I did, however, find three Black-necked Stilts.
The only time I have seen this unusual shorebird in Tennessee took place on Oct. 13, 2004, at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County. The bird, first found by Rick Knight, drew many excited birders to the location for looks at this shorebird before it departed to continue its migration flight south.
I have also seen Black-necked Stilt on Fripp Island, S.C, as well as in Utah.
The world of shorebirds has produced many look-alike species, including many of the small sandpipers often collectively labeled as “peeps” by birders. The Black-necked Stilt, however, is not at all likely to be confused with any other shorebird. It is a slender bird atop a pair of extremely long pink legs. It has a two-tone appearance with black upper parts and white underparts. The black and white dichotomy continues along the bird’s long neck and head. This bird also has a thin, needle-shaped bill that it uses to delicately pluck aquatic insects and other prey from water or mud.
I first spied the Black-necked Stilts at Huntington Beach State Park while walking on a marsh boardwalk near the park’s Nature Center. They flew toward the causeway, so I got into my car and drove there to try to re-locate them. I did find two of the stilts feeding along the causeway, but I never managed to find the third bird.
I watched the two Black-necked Stilts foraging for food in shallow water shared by egrets and alligators. The two birds, despite a somewhat gangly appearance, moved with elegantly efficient strides on their long pink legs. This bird feeds on an assortment of aquatic creatures, including small fish, insects and tadpoles. The seeds of aquatic plants also provides some of the food in its diet.
I also saw several plovers, another group of shorebirds, while in South Carolina. Wilson’s Plover was one that stood out during my visits to Huntington Beach State Park. Wilson’s Plover is a coastal shorebird that breeds on both coasts of the Americas from the equator northwards. Its range extends north to include much of the U.S. eastern seaboard as well as the Pacific coast of Mexico.
I’ve observed Wilson’s Plovers on Fripp Island, S.C., in the past, but those sightings have been rather sporadic. I have also observed this bird at one other location — at Douglas Lake in Cocke County back in the late 1990s.
The Wilson’s Plovers at Huntington Beach State Park were nesting in the dunes, which also gave me an opportunity to see some young plovers. A young Wilson’s Plover looks like a ball of downy feathers standing on toothpicks. This plover nests on a bare scrape on sandy beaches or sandbars. To protect the plovers, as well as other nesting species, this section of dunes on Huntington Beach State Park bars the entry of dogs. It is also roped off to prevent accidental intrusion by people.
Most of the Wilson’s Plovers that spend the summer in the United States retreat each fall, although a few migrate only as far as Florida. The rest spend the winter as far south as Brazil.
For a small shorebird, the Wilson’s Plover sports a thick, blunt and relatively large bill. In fact, this bill — that looks too big for its body — is a good way to identify this shorebird at a glance. The Wilson’s Plover forages for food on beaches. It has a fondness for crabs, which may explain the size and shape of its bill, but this bird will also eat insects, marine worms and other small organisms.
The Wilson’s Plover is larger than the related Semipalmated Plover and Piping Plover but considerably smaller than such relatives as Killdeer and Black-bellied Plover. This shorebird weighs only a couple of ounces, with a length of about eight inches and a wingspan of 19 inches. The Wilson’s Plover has a dark neck ring, grayish-brown upper parts, a white underside and pinkish legs.
This bird was named after the Scottish-American ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Wilson collected the type specimen during a trip in May of 1813 to Cape May, N.J. Other birds named for this pioneering bird expert include Wilson’s Warbler, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Snipe and Wilson’s Storm Petrel.
With a few exceptions, most of the shorebirds that I have found along the Atlantic Coast I have also observed here in land-locked Tennessee during spring and fall migration. It’s one of those little known facts I enjoy sharing with people, who are often surprised that these “beach birds” also make visits to our state.
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