Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: Shorebirds Are both Amazing and Challenging



Summer is just about over …  I remember saying that to a non-birder friend of mine a while back. “Summer is over in mid-July because the Shorebirds are done nesting and they begin their long migration from the high Artic to South America,” I said with a big smile feeling very proud of myself.

My friend looked at me very sad and was depressed for at least the rest of day. She promptly went home and turned in her beach badge to Ortley Beach and began instead surfing the Internet for sales on winter coats.

But for those of us who love birding this is a great time of year, when flocks of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers can be seen moving through the marshes like one single minded entity controlled by unseen forces. Dowitchers, Dunlin and Yellow-Legs line the mudflats. It is one of those amazing spectacles of nature that should not be missed.

Shorebirds to say the least can be challenging and make a birder downright crazy at times! There will be days when attempting to ID shorebirds will have you talking to yourself. There have been days that my wife has considered sending out a “Silver Alert” for me because I have spent so much time in the Meadowlands panning through flocks of shorebirds trying to distinguish a White-Rumped Sandpiper from the other thousand or so Sandpipers perusing the mudflats of the Meadowlands. “Thanks officer, tell my wife I will be home in a few days, I am just looking at shorebirds.”

Case in point … The bill length of the Short-billed Dowitcher and the Long-billed Dowitcher is the same! I know, I know, the bill length of the female Short-Bill is the same as the male Long Bill … or is it the other way around? There, you see!

Oh yes, and the field guides say you can also ID them by their sowing machine feeding action, but just when you think it is safe to continue through your book you realize that the Stilt Sandpiper does the same thing ….

Experts also tell us the Semipalmated Sandpipers have black little legs and the Least’s have little yellow legs. Well that should be easy, right ?  Unless of course they are standing in mud. Little tiny yellow legs in black mud? Good luck with that little tip. Oh but the  Semipalmated Sandpiper has partially webbed feet they tell us, so that will make it easier. WELL THEY ARE STANDING IN THE MUD , WHAT DON’T THEY GET ?

Now on second thought it could be a Western Sandpiper too, hmmm ? Excuse me while I look for an aspirin … ok, now let’s talk about Yellow-Legs. We have the Lesser and Greater Yellow-legs and the field guides tell us … oh well.

Despite the occasional confusion, shorebirds are challenging and at the same time magnificent. No other group of birds demonstrates how critically important the Meadowlands are to migratory birds. Many thousands of the diverse species of shorebirds will be traveling from their breeding territory in the High Arctic and stopping to rest and refuel at DeKorte, Mill Creek, Harrier Meadow and all Meadowlands points in-between to continue their long arduous journey to South America.

So grab a field guide and a friend , look for low tide and get out enjoy one of the most spectacular spectacles of nature. Migration of the shorebirds at the Meadowlands .

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