September 9, 2009
Intrepid bird observer Allen Larner spotted an odd-looking shorebird at a local farm pond on Sunday, and as the mystery of its true identity deepened, more and more visitors came to Staunton from far and wide. The bird in question is either a Greater Sand-Plover or a Lesser Sand-Plover, and in spite of dozens of fair-to-good quality photographs,* the experts seem stumped. Both species nest in the subarctic tundra regions, and spend the winter in various parts of Europe and Asia. The Lesser Sand-Plover is often seen in Alaska occasionally along the Pacific Coast, but there are only one or two confirmed cases of the Greater Sand-Plover in North America. Neither one has ever been sighted in Virginia, so it's a remarkable event in either case. Here are my observations sent to the shenvalbirds e-mail group:
My impression was that the bill was small and slender, as in a Lesser, but in some of the photos I've seen, the bill looks larger. As for the size, I thought it looked notably larger than the nearby Semi-palmated Plover (7.3 in), so that makes the Greater (8.5 in) more likely than the Lesser (7.5 in).
Here is the first part of what Erik Hirschfeld, an ornithologist from Malmo, Sweden wrote (via the shenvalbirds e-mail group) about the photos he saw:
When I look at them, I still think this is a Greater and here are my reasons therefore:
1. The size. This is a large bird (cf the Semipalmated Plover in one of the photos)
* See, for example, Brenda Tekin's photo gallery at birdsofvirginia.com , or Allen Larner's photos at flickr.com , or Diane Lepkowski's photos at smugmug.com .
A final verdict will probably take days or weeks, but it's nice to know that a leading authority picked up on the same feature that I did. DISCLAIMER: I have a weak background in shorebird identification, and would have had no way of knowing which bird it was without the National Geographic Complete Birds of North America (Exclusive Edition, hard cover, 2006), edited by Jonathan Alderfer. At 696 pages, it is my biggest bird reference book. Many thanks to our friend Gail Rupp for this very thoughtful and useful gift.
So how did this bird get so far off course? I figured it must have gotten confused wandered southward through Canada, but another birder suggested an alternative possibility: It might have already arrived from northern Scandinavia to the coast of North Africa, and then got swept up in the tropical storm that eventually became Hurricane Erica. That would be quite a trip!
Being way behind in my e-mail -- as usual -- I didn't even know about this rare appearance until Walt Child from the Augusta Bird Club called me about the club's Web site on Monday, and asked if I had seen the rare bird. Earlier that morning, ironically, Jacqueline and I had gone for a "walk" very close by, on Bell's Lane, without even realizing the momentous happenings nearby. (She always covers much more distance than I do, since I'm always peering through my binoculars. ) These are what I saw on Monday morning (Labor Day):
These are what I saw that afternoon, along with 20 or so other birders:
The next day, Tuesday, there was an e-mail report of five American Avocets on one of the Bell's Lane ponds, and late in the afternoon I spotted them right away. They were the first of that species I have seen in years. Meanwhile, a Kestrel was hovering above that same pond. Then, I went over to see the Sand-Plover and his "friends" for a second time -- the same four birds as listed above. I went for a third visit today, but the Sand-Plover has apparently left town for good. There were still at least 8-10 hardy and hopeful birders standing vigil, including two guys from Pennsylvania whom I met. The day's highlights: