I recently saw some mud, quite a feat around Cape Sable Island as we have (so far) had 37/39 days of fog since July 1st. We do get summer fog, especially around The Hawk and, true, Daniel’s Head has at times been visible during this prolonged period of pea-soupers, but mostly the thick grey stuff has swirled around the island preventing heavy birding and I have frequently had to resort to my West Head standby site just to get an eBird checklist in. At least at West Head you can see the two small pools there and there is the hope of a few birds, usually common but a previous Little Blue Heron, Stilt Sandpiper and Common Gallinule always fuel optimism for the unusual and it must get Sora and Virginia Rail from time to time so always worth a stop anyway.
August 1st, just like any first of a month, means I am out birding longer and seeing what there is out there, trying to cover as much of CSI as I feel like doing. The fog this time dictated otherwise (mostly) and so I made for West Head. My usual routine is to drive to the trailer parking lot, pull in sharply off the road into the rutted lot, narrowly missing being rear ended by the truck that tailgated me all the way through Newellton (never the same truck, they work me in shifts!). The southern-most pool is looked at first, it has its own drowned forest of sorts (well, drowned shrubbery) and it can take some careful looking to be sure not to have missed a lurker. I then scoot over the lot and view the northernmost pool, it is cleaner (relatively) and offers a different mud option.
The first bird I saw through the foggy shroud this August 1st was a long-billed peep. ‘Peep’ is the generic term for a small shorebird and in the north-east (that would be here) it is applied to Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers – the other small shorebirds are easy to ID so peep just does not apply. This ‘peep’ looked Semipalmated (no crake-like, arthritic feeding action nor yellow legs making it a Least) but it was seriously be-schnozzled, it had a whopper, we are talking beaksville NS. When you are a birder you notice these things, and so I crept out of the van and, having first rattled off some high ISO doc-shots, got the scope on it. I had Western Sandpiper on my mind, well you would wouldn’t you, and so I went for the field marks, rusty scapulars (shoulder), rust in the cheeks and crown and hoped the bill had the tell-tale but not always obvious kink in the last fifth of its length, it didn’t have any or all of the above.
Semipalmated Sandpiper is super common here right now and the abundance will increase as more arrive. We may well have a billion out there but I mentioned the fog earlier and so the eight I saw were all I had to work with. Some female Semipalmated Sandpipers have long bills, they don’t normally look as obviously glued-on as a Westerns but are still party-sized. This bird had the longest of any Semipalmated I’ve ever seen but everything else about it was regular Semipalmated issue. After a short period of observation the bird flew to the back of the pool, perhaps an assumption by me as I could hardly see the back, it being 70m deeper into the murk.
Once home I threw the image onto the computer and found I had one decent doc-shot, so I sent, it via Facebook, to a few people to keep them in the loop and stuck it on our Facebook Cape Sable Island wildlife group page (why not join, we’ll take anybody!) for others to enjoy. Later, in a moment, Western was uttered from elsewhere. Seeking further input via Facebook, especially from those birders out there tripping over Westerns on their local beach right now, I got a comment from Oregon confidently stating that my bird was a Western, they look like that at the moment and that it would just be skipped past as they search for their own elusive ‘peep’, for them a Semipalmated. Result, no not really, the ID features we all rely upon regarding the two species had just been summarily re-written, so how were we supposed to sort them out now? While advice from other quarters is always welcome and the source is usually well-informed and bravely given (so few experienced birders stick their necks out, even an inch) it should always be balanced with what you know to be true and I still thought this a Semi-P but changed the eBird checklist anyway, ostensibly to see what ‘they’ thought.
A few days later the ping-pong ball of identification shifted and the bird was stated to be a very long billed Semipalmated for not having the very plumage features I’ve already mentioned. ‘Out West’ some people were surprised at just how long those lady Semi-Ps like to wear their bills sometimes and so their whole rarity-search master plan had to be re-edited to include them. The whole exercise was very interesting and almost made me forget about the damn fog, almost. We do get Western Sandpiper here in NS, I’ve even seen and badly photographed one at Daniel’s Head a few years ago. How many real ones we get is open to conjecture as the West Head bird discussion will confirm. It is very likely that past claims unsupported by the right plumage features and, preferably these days, a reference photo, may not have sufficiently ruled out these long-billed Semipalmated vixens and, to me at least, this begs another question, why the long bill?
Long-billed female Semipalmated Sandpipers are pretty much a northeast coast thing and not that common. They don’t seem to be found inland, which in itself is interesting, also why do we assume that they are all female? Given their niche availability is it vaguely possible that they are something else entirely, something between Semipalmated and Western that we don’t fully understand? I doubt any specific work has ever been done with them and it is possibly only through improved scrutiny, as offered by digital photography, that more appreciation of their existence has developed. I’m not saying they are a different species, but I’m not saying they are not either because I don’t know but there are precedents. Cox’s Sandpiper is the progeny of two species (look it up) but was, for a brief period, afforded its place in the full-species sun (I think). Iceland Gull is probably on its way to being multiple species, that it will never get there is our fault as we have severely moved the goalposts – planet life-bearing longevity-wise! Caspian Gull was unknown until the 1980s when it was found, or at least realised to be in existence, by birders. There is stuff out there still to know and those who think we know it all might need to sit down and think about it.
IF someone does do the work on these birds may I suggest, as someone who has stuck their neck out a good two inches with this blog post, Calidris deBergerac?
As usual I have decorated the post with images but they are all peeps and so, if you still call them peeps then we’re done here.
Above, two Semipalmated Sandpipers as sighters.
Above, the West Head bird and below a real Western Sandpiper from roughly the same time period (and conditions!) from British Columbia
The rest of the photos show long billed Semipalmated Sandpipers from a time when we had visibility on CSI. The last bird is especially interesting for the bill kink but can I see palmations there? Note also the rustiness on of some of these long billed semi-Ps.
This adult Semipalmated was at West Head on 08Aug, 2018. I don’t recall seeing one with such pronounced tramlines before. Just posted for interest.