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Stilt Sandpipers and tide of history

October 12, 2012
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This is a shortish post.  The ongoing eBird project ongoes.  My time away from work has allowed for some progress to be made such that I’m moving through the shorebirds like a Red Knot at a horseshoe crab convention.  There may be easier ways to go about this project – undoubtedly entering everything into a spreadsheet and uploading the whole deal would be simpler – but I’m using this project to learn as much as I can about status and distribution of the birds in my adopted state.  From that perspective, it’s been a huge success.  But it’s also been illuminating to see the change in the last 30 years, particularly with regards to what was considered a record of note in the 1980s compared to what is considered one now.

photo from wikipedia

Take, for instance, the Stilt Sandpiper.  Stilt Sandpipers are one of those species that takes a different route in the spring than they take in the fall. Northbound birds travel up the center of the continent and southbound birds are more diffuse, with many trickling over into North Carolina.  As such, spring records of Stilt Sandpiper in the Carolinas are rare, but fall records are regular.  This is particularly true on the coast where large concentrations can occur, but Stilts make it into the Piedmont region too, and in the time I’ve been birding this part of North Carolina I’ve found them nearly every single year that the lakes are low enough to support shorebirds.  I enjoy seeing them, but I’ve never considered seeing them to be particularly noteworthy.

And yet, the years from 1980 to at least the mid 2000s , Stilt Sandpipers in the Triangle were notable enough to make it into the briefs in the quarterly journal annually.  Each individual is painstakingly listed.  Until rather abruptly about 2003, individual records are no longer referenced in favor of high counts and the like. Why?

I have a couple theories.  And you can be certain that one of them is not there are more Stilt Sandpipers because that can’t be the case. It may be simply that the changing of the guard from one volunteer compiler to the next accounts for the sudden discrepancy.  Perhaps the new writer simply and rightly didn’t think Stilt Sandpipers are all that rare and probably don’t need to be noted as specifically as before.  I’m not sure that’s it either, however.

Thinking back to a post I wrote a couple weeks ago about confusing fall warblers, I was reminded of a comment left by David Ringer of Search and Serendipity, the relavant part of which is recounted below:

I have a book from the ’60s, maybe, about becoming a better birder, and there’s a chapter on shorebirds. There’s a lengthy discussion on the extreme difficulty of identifying Stilt Sandpipers in the field; the author says that a birding mentor of his never successfully identified a live Stilt Sandpiper in the field. Which boggles the mind, of course, given the elegance and beauty of these birds, and their identifiability, even at long distances under bad conditions.

David is right.  Birders, particularly those younger birders, have been brought up to think there’s nothing particularly difficult about identifying a Stilt Sandpiper.  Of course, when I was just starting out I though they were impossible, but a little experience with the species showed how wrong I was.  This sort of confidence is a relatively recent phenomenon.  It was not that long ago that Stilt Sandpiper was notable largely because it, like so many shorebirds (not to mention fall warblers and subadult gulls), was felt to be somewhat difficult, perhaps even impossible.   Knowledge of this species, ease at which it could be identified, easily separated the novice from the expert, and maybe it was felt that it deserved to be recorded for that reason, as a reminded that this birding thing is tough and we should take it seriously.

I dunno, I’m sort of spit-balling here and I’m not sure this is a completely fully formed idea yet, but there has to be some explanation for the precipitous decline in reports.  Because there’s certainly no shortage of Stilt Sandpipers around here during the right time of year.

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One Comment
  1. David permalink
    October 12, 2012 12:55 pm

    It`s odd that you mention that. My dad grew up looking at birds in the 60s and 70s and those of that era seem to have (having met several of his birding friends) a certain ranking of which birds are more important than others. Today the emphasis is on gulls and shorebirds as the edge of birding ids which is represented I find in the posts by bloggers and listserves. However back then according to their stories, the emphasis was on warblers and other passerines which today are almost dealt with in a similiar way as House Sparrows and Pigeons on blogs. They`re there, but only as filler until some better bird comes along. All that to say that I wonder if maybe what you see there is a visible representation of that shift towards difficult shorebird/gull identification which seems to fascinate the more modern birders.

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