A Morning Of Mysteries

Above a stilt sandpiper preen. Check out the tip of its bill.
Above a stilt sandpiper preen. Check out the tip of its bill.

On the beach there’s some fog, no wind and the Gulf is calm. A blue and tangerine horizon make it look like dawn even though it’s later.  This tranquil morning is minutes away from becoming a mysterious one.

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Why’d They Do That?

There’s an “assembled multitude” of gulls, terns and various shorebirds. As I get closer, a large group of fast flying “peeps” over the water has my attention. “Peeps,” is an all purpose term used for smallish brown shorebirds which are hard to distinguish. Since I see these birds every day in winter, I can usually recognize them without much difficulty, but not at this speed and distance. There are thirty, no, make that sixty peeps speeding toward the assembled multitude. This is an unusually large group. Just as they get there, it’s like an invisible current of electricity runs through the birds making them do an about face in mid air and leave faster than they came. Why?

Above some red knots feeding. Note that one has a leg tag.
Above some red knots feeding. Note that one has a leg tag.

Once the poster bird for the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, brown pelicans are common along here. Looking at their enormous bills, it isn’t hard to believe that they’ve been in the fossil record for at least 30-million years. They come in groups of three and four flying with their wing tips seemingly mere inches off the water’s surface. No matter how many times I’ve seen them do this I still marvel at the skill and dexterity of these clumsy appearing birds. Sometimes they fly in larger groups all following the leader, as they dip low over the water and then climb in a long languid roller coaster motion. I don’t wonder how they can: they just do.

A Mystery Bird

At the “assembled multitude” all the usual suspects have gathered. Except for one unfamiliar sandpiper. This stranger has light eye rings, speckled sides, greenish legs and a dark droopy bill. I don’t know if it’s a dunlin or a stilt sandpiper. I’m happy to have a mystery bird. After taking pics of it, I forget to take photos of the dozens of red knots, some of which still have traces of rust on their bodies. Even though it’s December these traces of summer plumage remain. The sun has now come out and all the red knots standing close to some red seaweed look clear and larger than life as do the gulls and terns near them.

A black skimmer taking a bath.
A black skimmer taking a bath.

Coming back to this group I’m surprised to see that the knots are gone and in their place are a ton of sanderlings. While both of these birds are sandpipers, the knots at 10.5-inches are larger than their 8-inch cousins. What really sets these two species apart is their GIZZ, the general impression of the color and speed. The knots have dull brown backs and heads as well as dull white breasts and bellies. There are usually numbers of them and they move together with a slow, flowing motion. The sanderlings are often in groups of five and seven. Their colors are far more cheerful than those of the drab red knots. Their wing joints, in winter, are a rich chocolate brown as are the tips of their folded wings. Their brown bodies are darker than those of the knots and their bellies are a bright white. They move quickly scurrying along the beach pecking at the wet sand left by retreating waves.

A large part of the “assembled multitude” are black skimmers, colorful red white and black birds whose lower mandible is longer than their upper one. Periodically, with no warning, they all up and fly over the water in a long arch, slowly coming back to the same place on the beach. If you are under them as they lift off and return, it’s a child’s delight. Today they seem to be doing it more than usual.


A preening sanderling.
A preening sanderling.

At the beach’s south end is another sandpiper but at 15-inches is too large to be a  “peep.” This is a willet, a uniformly dull light brown shorebird with a bill that looks to be a little too long for their bodies. In flight this plain Jane shows a bold black and white flashing wing pattern that breaks out as they take to the air. Its call can be long and piercing. Seven are feeding together in shallow water taking small white shells in their chopsticks-like bills. As it is nearly noon they are slowing down. One spits out a shell. Another lifts its foot out of the wet sand which falls off like mud as it turns to walk onto firm sand and rest.


Black skimmers above the"assembled multitude."
Black skimmers above the”assembled multitude.”

How’d They Do That?

On a nearby mound are a large number of sanderlings as there were at the beach’s other end. Then they all start to walk, like an army, toward the water as if a whistle, not hearable by human ears, just blew. They all stay by the water near a large amount of red seaweed brought in by the tide. Then as if another such soundless whistle blew, they march en masse up the sloping hill of sand from which they came. I can only stare in wonder.


A skimmer making a statement.
A skimmer making a statement.

I don’t know why they did this nor what it means any more than I understood, earlier this morning why the “peeps” suddenly about faced in mid air and flew away when it seemed that they would land. These actions are interesting, mysterious, and well worth noting about these shorebirds. They help to build a rich profile.  Frankly, I like a little mystery.  What would life be without it?

What I can’t live without is not knowing if my mystery bird is a dunlin or a stilt sandpiper. Later this afternoon I’m going to study my pics of that bird and compare them to field guide drawings. That’s a mystery that’s solvable.



Michael Givant
Michael Givant is a columnist for Anton Media Group. His column A Bird's Eye View is popular among local birdwatchers and photographers.




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