Curlew Sandpiper: A Pandemic Lifer
I really struggled with the decision about whether to drive up to Santa Barbara to look for a lifer Curlew Sandpiper. I’m a big 5MR booster. I frown upon those birders who drive all over creation chasing birds. And this bird was a 90 mile drive from my house. Is driving an hour and a half to see a bird just because it’s not on your life list the right way to live? What if it isn’t there when I go? Choosing vacation spots based on birding considerations is one thing. Combining a work trip with some birding is taking full advantage of an opportunity. But just driving, by myself, for three hours, for the sole purpose of maybe seeing a vagrant bird to get a tick on my list?
On the other hand, birders love seeing new birds. It’s practically an affliction. And a Curlew Sandpiper isn’t just any old lifer. It’s an ABA Area Code 3 bird. That means it occurs annually in the ABA area (the United States and Canada) but in very low numbers. According to the Audubon Field Guide, “a few Curlew Sandpipers turn up on the Atlantic Coast every year. . . . Elsewhere in North America, this Eurasian wader is only a rare visitor.” They breed in Siberia. They winter along coasts in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Australia. They are reported almost annually in California, but rarely more than a one or two birds. And the ones that are spotted typically don’t linger.
The Curlew Sandpiper at UCSB was apparently first spotted on September 16th, at a beach along the UCSB campus. I don’t regularly keep tabs on bird sightings outside of LA County. But my wife teaches at UCSB, and so I occasionally see what’s being seen in Santa Barbara. I think it was around October 1st that I learned about the Curlew Sandpiper, which was still hanging around. Work commitments and a camping trip to Joshua Tree meant that I wouldn’t have a chance to drive up and see the bird until October 8th. And there was no guarantee it would stay around that long.
After we came back from Joshua Tree, I checked the sightings. Sunday (the 4th) was the first day since September 16th that the Curlew Sandpiper hadn’t been reported. And it wasn’t for a lack of birders trying to find it. Part of me was relieved, because that meant I didn’t have to make the decision to drive to Santa Barbara and back just to see a bird. But it was seen again on Monday the 5th. And Tuesday and Wednesday.
Because it was a 90 mile drive, I didn’t have the luxury of waiting to make sure that somebody saw the bird before I hit the road. Even if I did wait, that wouldn’t mean that it’d be there when I showed up. Being a total nerd, I even plotted the sightings for the last week against the tides, to see if it was more likely to be seen on the beach at high or low tide. There didn’t really seem to be a pattern. It had been found at 8am, at midday, and at 5pm. Encouraged by my wife to make the trip, I decided to go for it. I left around 9am, to let any traffic clear out. That would put me on the beach at 10:30am, which I hoped was before any bird nap time would start.
Finding the bird turned out to be easy. It was most frequently reported on the beach near parking lot 6, usually associating with a group of Sanderlings. I parked in parking lot 6. I went down the stairs to the beach. I scanned the beach, and saw a group of 50 or more Sanderlings a 100 yards north. I walked to the group. After a couple of minutes of scanning, I picked out the Curlew Sandpiper. It was similar to a Dunlin in size, with a long black bill that drooped at the end. But it had a more prominent white eyebrow. And its color was more brown than the winter gray of our Dunlins. And the bird appeared a little slimmer and larger than a Dunlin. It was feeding in the kelp that lines the beach , and probing in the sand, quite busily. Occasionally, it would snip at a Sanderling. When the group flushed and flew off, I got clear views of the all white rump on the Curlew Sandpiper. This sealed the ID because Dunlin have a dark patch in the center of their rumps.
So that was that. Mission accomplished. I hung round the beach for 30 minutes, keeping my eye mostly on the Curlew Sandpiper. There were also Black Turnstones, Semipalmated Plovers, Least Sandpipers, Marbled Godwits, and a Long-billed Curlew feeding on the wrack. And I stopped at another spot near campus and found a Tropical Kingbird before I hit the highway back to L.A.
It’s a shame that the beaches near me in L.A. are almost completely devoid of any organic debris. I’m not sure if that’s because there isn’t much kelp in the bay or some other environmental explanation. I am sure that the tractors that rake the beaches all the time, and the “clean-up” efforts to get rid of the “unsightly” kelp, are part of the reason. The fly-infested, stinky piles of seaweed are critical to a healthy beach environment. We’d probably get more shorebirds stopping over here in L.A. if we had beaches that aren’t exclusively tailored for (and dominated) by sunbathing humans.