Occupy Sandbar: That’s what shorebirds do, because only on the edges of our coastline can they live.
Last week, birders and biologists all over Florida put their binoculars together to see how the original snowbirds are doing on their wintering grounds (which we mostly think of as “our” beaches and sandbars). It’s called the statewide Winter Shorebird Survey. My assigned territory required a kayak trip about a mile off shore to a set of linear, mostly submerged sandbars in Franklin County. There’s really nothing out there for people, but the sand means everything to the birds.
The task I shared with my birding buddy, Mike Miller, was to tally 25 potentially occurring shorebirds, taking special care with the rarest and most imperiled: the American oystercatcher, the red knot, and three kinds of plover.
Once on the reef, we saw so many birds probing and plucking in the shallow water that we had to take turns with the spotting scope to spell our eyes. We set up a grid: Mike would count everything between the boat ramp and the water tower, calling out what he saw. When he counted the dunlin, the most numerous little shorebird on the reef, I’d have a long time to wait and look around. “Ten.” Pause. “Twenty,” he reported. “Another 30.” Pause. Silence.
“Take your time,” I’d say, shifting from foot to foot on the sand, enjoying the sun on my back. Enjoying my great good luck to be out there at all. Then it would be my turn to count.
It took us four hours to tot up the several thousand birds taking refuge there at low tide. Our conservative estimate of dunlins was 1300 individuals. We saw more marbled godwits (those glorious cinnamon feathered beauties!) than I’ve ever seen in one place: 307.
I love all the shorebirds, but my current favorites are the plovers (that preference could change tomorrow, by the way). I’m adding pictures of the four kinds we saw on our count. Plovers are tiny muffins, distinguished by round, dovelike heads, modest bills and short bodies and necks. They run and snatch, rather than walk and probe for their prey. You find them scattered over the drier sand flats, inspecting the ground for insects, worms, or crustaceans. Aren’t they the best?
But believe me, plovers aren’t as distinctive as these images imply when the wind is shaking your spotting scope and the tide is aslosh at your feet.
To spend quality time with plovers, I like to hunker down in their habitat, fade into the sand, and watch what they do. But not on the Winter Shorebird survey. Three kinds of plover are in particular need of protection, and so we had to record extra data when we’d spot a snowy, Wilson’s or piping plover.
Sometimes I get so sad and anxious about the state of our planet, about all the ways humans take and take and take. Only a few years ago, a Tallahassee developer proposed plans to develop this very set of sandbars into condos. With septic tanks. The Audubon Society put up the bucks to buy the reef and saved it for those who cannot live without it.
During the shorebird survey, I thought about how it shouldn’t be up to just a few to protect all this glory. I thought of the lovely markings of the plovers, the dashes of color and little birds’ necks, ringed, according to species. I thought of the plovers’ 65-million year kinship with the coast.
Then I saw how the Earth is still playing with beauty, even today. As I walked back to my boat, I was delighted by the patterns of pine pollen floated across Apalachee Bay from Dog Island.