Striking Gold

| August 31, 2016 | 0 Comments

It was August 11, 2016.  Back within my familiar home range for the summer in Southwestern Michigan from graduate school out in New Hampshire, I had just recently finished my summer physics course I was taking for my teacher certification and was itching and ready to get out for some birding.

I had a late start to the day.  I didn’t arrive at my desired location until around 11:00am, which wasn’t necessarily ideal, but as this day would prove, arriving late is better than never in some cases.

The location was the Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Facility, in Muskegon, Michigan.  I arrived with high hopes of finding some decent shorebird diversity as the facility is often a local hub for this largely nomadic group of birds this time of year.  I pulled my car up to a location that, previously pinpointed on ebird, had been holding some good diversity of shorebirds.  As I parked, I noticed a large flock mixed with peeps and medium sized birds wading in the mud, probing their long, stubby bills in search of the afternoon’s lunch.  I got my scope out and started to scan.

The Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Plant. The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was down in that close pool.

The Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Plant. The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was down in that close pool.

I noticed the usual crowd at first, Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Killdeer, Pectoral Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, even a couple Stilt Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and a Baird’s Sandpiper were present.  As I continued to scan, I noticed one bird associating with a group of Pectoral Sandpipers that caught my eye as…“different”.  It looked unique from the surrounding birds.  It seemed to have a more striking chestnut brown coloration.  Associating with some nearby Pectoral Sandpipers, the bird had a similar air about it, but there was something that struck me to be unique about this bird.  I wasn’t quite sure what it was yet exactly, but it just seemed weird.

Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitcher

I spent some time photographing the so called “mystery bird” and went on my merry way, assuming that it was just some regular migrant shorebird that I wasn’t sure how to identify and wanted a little help with.  I spent about an additional hour at the wastewater treatment facility and left to go home thinking I just had another normal day of late summer birding.  Time would tell, however, that I had about the farthest thing from a normal day of birding, and my 32GB memory card was now holding a treasure of discovery.

Later that afternoon, going through the photos I had taken earlier, I had by Sibley Field Guide to the Birds cracked open to the shorebirds section.  I reviewed this “mystery bird” on my own and noticed that it seemed to have a greyish brown breast like the Pectoral, but it did not stop abruptly at the belly, it had barring that continued on into the flanks.  This, as I looked at my guide, seemed as a field mark that fit better with the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper rather than the Pectoral Sandpiper.  After looking at the range map for Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, however, I quickly discredited the possibility of this rare vagrant in my own mind.  I decided to get a second opinion however.  I posted my photos to a Facebook group I am apart of called “What’s this Bird?”  The group is very helpful and there is a handful of expert birders that provide quick and informative responses on photos posted to the group page.

After posting a few photos of the bird to the group, I received a quick identification response of Pectoral Sandpiper from one of the more experienced names in the group.  I was satisfied and about to close the books on it…until…someone else questioned the initial I.D.  I was asked to post a few more photos if possible.

My photos were mostly poor quality, but I had captured one that revealed enough to confirm the true identity of this bird.  After posting a few more photos of this bird at different angles and after about four hours of back and forth online chat, the I.D. was confirmed…it was a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper!!!  WOW!!!

 

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

 

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Evening viewing party...

Evening viewing party…

At this point, my hands were literally shaking.  I had never found a bird of this degree of rarity before and, not only that, before anyone else had either.  This bird turned out to be the first state record for the state of Michigan!  News spread like wildfire once I sent out an email to the state wide rare bird list serve and people were travelling from across and even from outside of the state to see this mega rarity.  The bird stuck around for about three days and was seen by about 120 birders.  What an awesome bird and opportunity!!  And, interestingly, after it had disappeared from Michigan, an adult Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (the bird in Michigan was an adult as well) showed up in Arkansas a few days later…a first state record there as well!  Same bird??  Perhaps…

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Kevin Vande Vusse
Growing up in the Grand Rapids area of Southern Michigan, Kevin always enjoyed spending time outdoors. Whether it be fishing or hunting with his father, or a family trip to the Lake Michigan shore, Kevin enjoyed being outside. Having an interest in nature from a young age, birds were not always the focal point of his love for wildlife. It wasn’t until traveling to Costa Rica in 2011 on a study abroad venture and seeing the Resplendent Quetzal for the first time in the wild that Kevin fell in love with our feathered friends. From that point on it was a slippery slope, and he fell in face first. Going back to Michigan with a new love and passion to learn the birds, Kevin bought his first field guide and just started walking around.

Graduating with a B.S. in Natural Resources Management from Grand Valley State University in 2012 and currently working towards his M.S. in Environmental Studies with a Science Teacher Certification, Kevin hopes to someday be a middle school science teacher. Incorporating his love and passion for avian life into the world of education and inspiring the minds of young people is only one of the many ways he hopes promote conservation through education of the next generation.

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