Do you like puzzles? Have we got one for you!
Shorebird migration peaks at Cheyenne Bottoms around the first two weeks of May. For anyone who likes a good challenge, identifying these avian visitors can be an exercise in patience and attention to detail.
First we should examine what shorebirds are. Loosely, shorebirds belong to the order of birds known as Charadriiformes, which includes numerous groups such as sandpipers, plovers, stilts, snipe, and avocets. All of these birds have a typical body form that includes relatively long legs, long narrow wings, and usually long, narrow bills, which are used to catch invertebrates. The long legs suit the birds well for walking on shorelines and mudflats and in shallow water habitats. Their feet are not webbed, but their long toes help to distribute their weight to navigate on the mud.
The sandpipers are some of the smallest birds that are seen at Cheyenne Bottoms. The Least Sandpiper is considered the smallest of the shorebirds, and weighs a mere 20g (about the same mass as 4 quarters). Although they may be small, many of these species travel some of the longest-distant migrations of any birds. Several of the species of shorebirds spend their winters in southern South America and breed in northern Canada, north of the Arctic Circle; for example, Pectoral Sandpipers overwinter at the southern tip of Argentina, at Tierra del Fuego, and breed in northern Alaska, northern Canada, and even north-central Siberia. That amounts to migrations of up to 9,000 miles each way! That gives a new meaning to international travelers stopping at Cheyenne Bottoms.
There are approximately 30 species of shorebirds that have been documented at Cheyenne Bottoms. Many of these species are sandpipers, which present the most challenging identifications. Overall, the sandpipers have white feathers on their bellies, with mottled brown and gray plumage on their wings, backs, and heads. This non-descript coloration, along with their small size, makes field identification tough. To distinguish the different species, birders often must focus on very subtle combinations of characteristics, such as the color of the legs, length of the wings, and length and shape of the bill.
Other conspicuous behaviors also can help observers identify the birds. For example, Spotted Sandpipers have a characteristic and constant tail bob as they wander the shoreline. And, the first time you see Wilson’s Phalaropes spinning like a top in the water you will never forget them.
If you are interested in trying your birding skills out on shorebirds, the Kansas Wetlands Education Center can help you. First, we have several excellent bird identification field guides for sale in our gift store. If you would rather not spend money, we also have a supply of a shorebird pocket guide available for free from the Great Plains Nature Center as well as a shorebird identification cheat sheet to help you out. Finally, if you are still not confident in your identification skills, let us take you out on a van tour to help get you started.
It is too easy to take for granted the places in our own backyard. Cheyenne Bottoms is no different. For birdwatching, this is the time of year to be at Cheyenne Bottoms, and the place is so easily accessible if you just take the time. So, get out and check out the sandpipers, they will be gone before you know it.