By Keith Michael
Standing at the railing in Hudson River Park, binoculars poised, I’m scanning the rocks of the recently demolished Sanitation Pier for the umpteenth time. I’m willing a Spotted Sandpiper to appear doing its tail-bobbing rumba walk picking through the seaweed wrack line, and for the umpteenth time: nada.
I’ve seen Spotted Sandpipers in similar rocky locations in all of the other boroughs, as well as in Central Park, so why not here in the West Village? In true corgi-fashion, Millie is tugging me back the other way. In her opinion, looking for one elusive migrating bird, no matter how spottedly dapper, is a preposterous pursuit, counterproductive to walking home for her mid-morning nap.
In my 11 years birding in the West Village, out of 104 species tallied (a handsome number, I like to think), only two, count ‘em two, shorebirds are among their ranks: a Semi-palmated Sandpiper and a Red-necked Phalarope. Wow, those names sound so esoteric, even mythical! Maybe I should take a step back to “What the hell is a shorebird?” (Millie’s ears have perked up at my raised voice.)
Perhaps a more familiar name is ‘sandpiper’—those tiny scurrying gray-and-white birds on a late summer beach trying not to get their feet wet in the bounding waves. These are probably Sanderlings or the more generic ‘peeps’ (a congenial name for a host of small, peeping, rushing birds at the water’s edge). Shorebirds pick and probe about in the mud of freshwater lakes and ponds as well as on the sandy shores of salt water. For their stature, they are generally long-legged and range in size from the smaller-than-a-sparrow Least Sandpiper to the crow-sized Godwits and Whimbrels. (Oh dear, I seem to be getting deeper into Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky language.) To make things more confusing, several species are more rightfully ‘grasspipers,’ spending most of their time on tundra, savannah, and pasture. If one is very, very lucky, around 40 species of these sandpipers/shorebirds/grasspipers might be seen passing through New York City on their arduous migrations from the far north of Canada and Alaska to their winter sojourns in South America. They are a “subtle” group of birds to say the least—thus, their charisma.
Part of what I find endlessly fascinating about shorebirds is simply contemplating that winter sojourn in South America. Migration seems SO impractical. With recent tracking technologies, birds have been fitted with miniscule transmitters that can send data all along their unfathomably long journeys. A Semi-palmated Sandpiper was recently clocked flying 3,000 miles non-stop from eastern Canada to Venezuela. Bar-tailed Godwits have revealed that they fly 6,000 miles non-stop during an eight-day marathon over the Pacific from Alaska to Australia. A Red-necked Phalarope was discovered to have completed an annual 16,000-mile round trip trek from Ireland, across Iceland, down the East Coast of North America to the coast of Peru and back. North American Phalaropes head for high-elevation lakes in the Andes, or on to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego—not a sleepy commuter flight.
How did this grueling, dangerous, inconceivable (to me) travel-bug get started? Yes, one hears that the far North is optimal breeding territory during our summer (fine dining, fewer predators, and mosquitoes), and that the South has an abundance of delicacies to feast on during our winter (not to mention much more bearable temperatures). And yet, how did they pick up the right travel brochures and click on the best search engines to find these “once-in-a-lifetime” vacation spots? Maybe during the last Ice Age these northern and southern destinations were closer together. Then, with the melting glaciers, year by year, Mom and Dad Sandpiper discussed over breakfast, “Should we go just a little further next year, dear?”
Every time I see a shorebird, I contemplate where it’s been and where it’s going—my few minutes or seconds watching its journey are humbling. That one Semi-palmated Sandpiper, seen several years ago, was a fly-by; its telltale chattery flight call alerted me to its blink-and-you-missed-it southbound passing (no, I didn’t see its namesake partially webbed toes). Conversely, the star Red-necked Phalarope hung out for a Sunday morning among the pilings north of Pier 40. Phalaropes have an idiosyncratic feeding style: They spin in the water, creating a vortex which sucks up plankton and crustaceans for their dining pleasure, dizzying but apparently effective. They are also noteworthy in the avian world because the females are the flashy dressers, fight over mates, and relegate the males to sitting on the nests and raising the kids—how thoroughly modern!
“Millie, you win, let’s go home.”
I’ll have to come back another time hoping to bask in a few glimpses of a teeter-tottering Spotted Sandpiper on its layover to South America.
For more information about New York City WILD! nature outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com.