Bird #361 — American Golden-Plover

pluvialis (pertaining to rain) dominicus (of Santo Domingo)

Friday, August 21, 1998 —12:20 pm

Oneida County, Wisconsin — Rainbow Flowage

I got up at 5:30 this morning and drove to Powell Marsh.  I stayed there for two-and-a-half hours and saw several American Bitterns, two Merlins, and a bunch of other good birds.  I stopped at the used bookstore in Woodruff for a half hour or so, then went to Rainbow Flowage.  It has been a very dry summer and the water level was down as far as I can ever remember seeing it.

I parked and walked to my favorite spot.  The Ospreys were on their usual nest platform on the sandbar, but the sandbar wasn’t an island this year.  I headed out over the weed-covered flats that are usually under water.  As I crossed the sandbar and came out to the main part of the flowage, I saw a mud flat of at least 50 acres.  There were puddles throughout the area, and a lot of birds.  I counted 52 Great Blue Herons and didn’t even try to count the American Crows or Ring-billed Gulls.  I started to walk out on the flats but soon began sinking in the mud.  I set up my scope and saw a flock of sandpipers fly over the flats and land in a puddle way out near the lake.  I knew it was the peak of migration for shorebirds, so I searched for a way to get closer.  I noticed that the flats were different colors and soon learned to read them.  The black areas were trouble.  The gray areas had a dry crust but were muddy underneath.  The brown areas were sandy mud.  I’d sink some, but not too much.  The green areas were safe.  It was there that grass had begun to grow.   There wasn’t much grass, just enough scattered, short spikes to give it a greenish hue from a distance. I could see an extensive green bar that stretched well across the flats near the open water.  The trick was to get to it.  I had to walk around the flats and make several detours about mud and water-filled bays.  I finally arrived after a walk of over a mile at a point about 200 yards from where I started.

As I approached, I started getting excited.  I could see shorebirds all over the place.  The first ones I identified were Lesser Yellowlegs.  They were scattered all about, singly and in groups, wherever there was any water.  The most common birds were Pectoral Sandpipers.  Flocks of them would take off, fly around a few minutes and land, often in the same area they had just left. There were also Double-crested Cormorants, Sandhill Cranes, Bald Eagle, Killdeers, Semipalmated Plovers, Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Red-necked Phalarope, Ruddy Turnstone, and (later) Buff-breasted Sandpiper in the area.

Then I saw a lone plover.  I knew by its size and un-Killdeer-like markings that it had to be a Black-bellied Plover or an American Golden-Plover.  Since I hadn’t been expecting this bird, I checked my field guide for marks.  I only had Peterson’s with me, and it doesn’t give a lot of details.  My bird looked smaller than I remembered the Black-bellies I saw in Waukegan this spring, and the back feathers appeared to have warm tones.  I walked slowly toward it, stopping every few yards and looking through my scope.  The bird was on the mud, away from the water.  (Later, I did occasionally see one along the edge of water, but never wading.  Most frequently, they were in the green mud.)  As I approached, it acted skittish, more nervous than the Yellowlegs and Pectorals that were nearby.

The plover was about the length of the Lesser Yellowlegs, but stockier in build.  The body and bill shape were definitely plover-like.  The back was speckled with black, white, and brown.  Depending on the light, I could see a lot of brownish, or none.  It had a definite white eyebrow that separated its face from its darker cap.  The eyebrow stripe extended down its neck and onto the sides of its breast in an “S” but not as definite as the spring-plumage picture in the guide.  It was obvious that the bird was an adult in mid-molt.  The belly was a checkerboard of black and white splotches.  I was pretty certain the bird was a Golden, but I wasn’t positive.  The guide said the best marks could be seen in flight.  The Black-bellied has a white rump, a light-colored tail and white wing patches.  The Golden has the same dark speckled pattern from cap to tail with just indistinct patches on the wings.  I had to flush the bird.

I walked closer.  The plover ran away along the edge of a puddle with a Lesser Yellowlegs and a Pectoral Sandpiper.  When I was still thirty yards away, one of the birds took off.  I quick put down my scope and looked.  It was the plover.  It flew about thirty yards off to my right, landing closer to the open section of the lake.  It glided to a landing headed directly away from me.  I could clearly see that the rump and wings were unpatterned.  I had my bird.

I stayed in the area for another 40 minutes or so, watching the plover and the other shorebirds.  In places they were very thick and I soon found out why.  In crossing to another area, I walked across some black mud.  The surface of this was thick with gnats in a cloud about two inches above the ground. Mixed flocks of shorebirds were zipping past.  In one of these, I spotted three other American Golden-Plovers and again I could see the back.  On one of these, the wing patches were more distinct and this got me worried again.

There were birds everywhere.  I couldn’t even see to the other end of the flats, but there were shorebirds as far as I could see.  I was hoping to find a Stilt Sandpiper, but I wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t.  What I was seeing was good enough.  There must have been 5,000 birds in the area.  And they were providing me with excellent views.  There was a thick flock across a lagoon.  Most of the birds in this flock were Pectorals, but there were also several peeps (I only identified Least, but I think I might have seen some Semipalmated also), a smattering of Semipalmated Plovers, two Red-necked Phalaropes in winter plumage, and a lone Ruddy Turnstone.  When I looked down, there was a Lesser Yellowlegs and a Least Sandpiper within five feet of where I was standing.  Four Short-billed Dowitchers were not too much further away.  A Greater Yellowlegs was standing on a log about 20 yards away.

I promised my wife that I would be back at the house by 2:00, so I had to leave.  When I got home I said to her, “If you ever doubt that I love you, remember this day.  I walked away from one of the most incredible birding experiences I’ve ever had.”  I told her what I’d seen and she almost immediately said she wanted to go see it.  I was shocked.  I told her I’d be happy to take her, but I had to warn her.  It was very hot, very humid, no shade, and in the middle of a huge mudflat.  She still wanted to go.  Mom and Dad agreed to keep track of the girls and we took off.  We got back to the Flowage around 3:30.

In the meantime, I had looked at the National Geographic guide and saw that the black on the belly of the American Golden-Plover extends all the way to the tail.  On the Black-bellied Plover, the chest and front part of the belly is black, but the undertail coverts and back part of the belly is white.  I hadn’t noticed this.  Although my birds were in mid-molt, I figured I could tell.

We went back to the same spot.  The birds were still there, although more scattered and more active.  Individuals and flocks were flying back and forth all the time.  I was able to show my wife everything I’d seen earlier and something new, a flock of 15 Buff-bellied Sandpipers, another lifer.

I found two plovers standing in black mud along a puddle about 100 yards in from the open part of the lake.  One was dozing with its head tucked into its back feathers.  The other was preening.  Soon, they both began foraging, walking slowly along the edge, picking at the mud.  On several occasions, they faced away from me and when they bent to pick I could clearly see their undertail area.  The black and white splotches extended all the way to the tip.  Confirmation. We stayed for most of an hour, walking around and watching the show.

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