Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Treasure Hunting for Purple Sandpiper

This past weekend, I took a roadtrip to the Indiana lakefront for some birding. We were in search of some rare birds that had been reported in the area. It was a balmy day, with a windchill of 10 degrees, or less, with blustery gusts of 20 mile an hour winds. Not weather for couch potatoes.

Let's back up just a bit. Some of you may wonder why in the world would someone want to go out to look for birds in such frigid weather? For me, birding, or any other nature excursion, is a really fun game, a treasure hunt, if you will. I "find treasure" when I get to see a plant or animal that 1) I really like, 2)I haven't seen before, or 3) I have seen before, but it is uncommon or I didn't see it well the first time. I also get excited when I witness animal behavior, like an eagle chasing ducks, a warbler scarfing down a big, juicy caterpillar or a Hognose Snake playing dead.

I especially enjoy learning new things out in the field with others, like how to pick out a particular species of duck from a huge flock by its quick wingbeats, or how to tell what species of sparrow is hiding in the bush by its call note. These are skills that are developed over time, and I truly enjoy watching more skilled naturalists show off these talents. I am grateful for all of my mentors who have taken the time to show me these things.

On this particular day, we went searching for rare birds. One of the target birds I had never seen before, a Slaty-backed Gull. I knew this was a long shot. Unfortunately, we did not get to see it. Some of the other targets were ones I had seen but were uncommon, like Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Northern Shrike and Purple Sandpiper. Accompanying me on the trip was my friend, Andrew. I baited him into coming on this trip with the promise of visiting a Cabela's after we looked for birds.

Purple Sandpiper foraging with ice crystals in the foreground. Brrrr!

First stop was Michigan City Harbor. We were in search of various gulls, but also a Purple Sandpiper. Purple Sandpiper is a rarity for Indiana. I searched the archives for reports of the bird and as far as I could tell, one had not been seen in the state since 2008. At the harbor, we ran into a fantastic photographer and birder, John Kendall. John said they hadn't seen the bird all day and assumed it was gone. So off we went, a bit disappointed, into the headwind to look for gulls. A bit later, John appeared on the horizon excitedly motioning to us. The sandpiper was back! Woo-hoo!

This is a great thing about nature treasure hunting. There are many others out there that want to share the bounty. They will take the time to help you find these living jewels. And what a jewel it was! My photo does not do the bird justice. I really urge you to take a look at John Kendall's photos that you can access by clicking here. He was using top notch equipment while he was belly down on the cold pavement happily snapping away. The sunlight was just right and I could see the purple sheen glowing off the sandpiper's feathers. We watched the bird for quite a while as it probed its long bill into the mud and snatched up tasty zebra mussels.

Later in the day, we also found a female Long-tailed Duck and a gorgeous brilliantly-colored male Harlequin Duck. It was well worth braving the cold to find this bounty!StumbleUpon

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