L.A. County Lifer: Stilt Sandpiper
After a Friday night earthquake, I didn’t manage to get up and out for a bird walk this Saturday (though I wasn’t as lazy as my 11-year-old, who slept until 11:30am). Sometimes, a delay turns out to be an advantage. As I was eating breakfast, I checked the L.A. County birds listserv. It’s the time of year when vagrants abound. There was a 20-minute old report of a Stilt Sandpiper on the L.A. River. It was found, of course, by Richard Barth. (Who knows what the twitchers would do if he wasn’t out there hustling all year finding birds for them). I’d only seen Stilt Sandpiper twice, five years ago in Texas. Sensing an easy L.A. County lifer, I grabbed a mask and headed out.
When I arrived at the spot (the L.A. River at Slauson Ave), I was surprised that no one else was there. I double-checked that I had the location right. I did. Along with several hundred gulls, dozens of Black-necked Stilts, some Avocets, and a bunch of Least Sandpipers, I found the target group of dowitchers. But the river is wide, and even walking down to the water’s edge, the birds were far off on the other shore. I didn’t see anything amongst the dowitcher flock, but I did see three birds off to themselves that looked promising. With the report not indicating the number of Stilt Sandpipers seen, I figured they were probably Yellowlegs.
I crossed over the bridge to the other side of the river and scanned the dowitcher flock again. Still nothing. Another birder showed up and agreed there wasn’t a Stilt Sandpiper amongst the dowitchers. I decided to walk a bit upstream. I passed that same group of 3 long-legged sandpipers I’d seen earlier from afar, and gave them a closer look. They all looked pretty similar, and weren’t quite right for Lesser Yellowlegs. The eyebrow (birders say “supercilium”) was prominently white, and the bill was too long. I could convince myself the bill drooped down at the end. But because there were three of them, and not one, and thinking the report was of a single Stilt Sandpiper, I decided to wander a bit further up the river.
I hadn’t walked 20 feet when the other birder called me back. He was looking at the group of 3. We stared through our binoculars. He fired off shots with his mega-lens. We exchanged bird-nerd (“bnird”) references to field marks (“Bnird.com” was my runner-up choice for website name). And we agreed that we were looking at three Stilt Sandpipers. It never feels good to stare at the rare birds and have the guy behind you ID them. But it’s better than misidentifying a regular bird as a rarity.
More From the Week: Pectoral Sandpiper on Ballona Creek
The magic of the barren concrete section of Ballona Creek between Centinela and Inglewood continued this week. One afternoon, I spotted a Pectoral Sandpiper amongst the peeps. It wasn’t my first 5MR Pectoral sighting. A few years back one showed up at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh. But it was a pleasant surprise. They only get reported every 3-4 years on the west side, and only once previously on the Ballona Creek. Maybe a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper will wander into my 5MR before the year is up.
The birds apparently get their name from a puffed-up chest display they do on the breeding grounds involving an inflatable sac on their chest. There’s a good picture at the bottom of this article about Pectorals on their breeding grounds.