15 min

Shorebird Migration Through Northwest Ohio

(my August 2008 post)

From the Ohio birding e-mail listserv :

Shorebird migration

From: Kenn K
Date: Mon, 11 Aug 2008 19:32:03 -0400

Shorebird migration seems to be proceeding at a normal pace in northwestern
Ohio, in terms of both numbers and timing. Areas of shorebird habitat have
been changing constantly over the last six weeks ... as is also normal.
Among the areas accessible to the public, Pickerel Creek and Pipe Creek
wildlife areas were productive for a while, then the action shifted to
flooded fields in Ottawa County, and now the best accessible viewing is at
the flooded fields near Bellevue.

Stopover habitats for shorebirds are changeable by their very nature --
changing by the hour in tidal situations at the coast, changing by the day
inland, as low-lying areas flood or dry up. The shorebirds, seemingly more
adaptable than the birders, are quick to take advantage of new habitat,
quick to move on when it loses its appeal. Most migratory shorebirds are
such strong fliers that they can keep going for hundreds of miles, at least,
until they happen to find a good spot. In an inland region like Ohio, when
an area of good habitat appears, shorebirds migrating over will drop in. So
these temporary habitats give us a chance to take a sample of what is
passing overhead.

I had a chance to sample what was pausing in the back country of Ottawa Natl
Wildlife Refuge on Friday, Aug. 8, and today, Monday Aug. 11, when I tagged
along with a team doing research there. (Unfortunately, as reported
earlier, the auto tour at Ottawa won't be open this weekend, owing to
unforeseen delays in construction, but the main shorebird concentrations
right now are away from the auto tour anyway.) These are my very rough
numbers from one major impoundment from today, estimated when I wasn't up to
my knees in glutinous mud:

Semipalmated Plover 20 (mostly adults)
Killdeer 35
Greater Yellowlegs 14 (mostly adults)
Lesser Yellowlegs 90 (more juveniles than adults)
Solitary Sandpiper 15 (those seen well were adults)
Spotted Sandpiper 10 (adults and juvs)
Semipalmated Sandpiper 120 (roughly equal numbers of adults and juvs)
Least Sandpiper 200 (more juvs than adults)
Pectoral Sandpiper 40 (adults)
Stilt Sandpiper 2 (juvs)
Short-billed Dowitcher 25 (1 adult, the rest juvs)
Wilson's Snipe 4
The mix on Friday 8/8 was similar, but with the addition of one Long-billed
Dowitcher and two Dunlin, and larger numbers of Short-billed Dowitchers.
Also on Friday, slightly fewer of the Semi and Least Sandpipers were
juveniles.

I'm not mentioning these birds to frustrate birders who can't get into the
closed area of the refuge, but just to indicate that there are indeed good
numbers migrating through. Fortunately, we didn't see anything rare, and
all of these species could be expected in visits to the Bellevue ponds and
other accessible sites.

Dowitchers are worthy of special mention. Hundreds of Short-billed
Dowitchers were passing through the area a month ago; for example, I counted
86 on one impoundment at Pickerel Creek on July 4, and others had higher
counts there. Western Ottawa County had very heavy rains in early July,
causing damage to some local crops but creating temporary shorebird habitat,
and many Short-billeds (all adults of the prairie race, hendersoni) paused
in these flooded fields. On July 10 I saw a dozen in a flooded front yard
in the town of Rocky Ridge! July is the peak migration season for adult
Short-billeds here; by now the great majority of the adults have departed,
and numbers of juveniles have not yet reached their peak. Meanwhile, a few
adult Long-billed Dowitchers can be expected now, but juveniles aren't
likely to show up until September.

Along the lakeshore in northwestern and north-central Ohio there are many
areas of shorebird habitat that are far more accessible to the birds than to
the birders. For good viewing, for the time being, it's probably best to
keep checking the flooded fields near Bellevue. This is a great time of
year to be looking, too, because the differences between adults and
juveniles are very obvious for many species now, and the juveniles are
particularly beautiful in their crisp new plumage.

Shorebirds of Augusts past

From: Bill W
Date: Mon, 1 Sep 2008 10:00:02 -0400

Does all the attention to a few Sandusky County potholes and a single
godwit in central Ohio indicate minimalism among birders is becoming
fashionable, or are we just making the best of a bad deal? To see
whether I'm just a worry-wart, I looked back in the archives of
ohio-birds and the Ohio Cardinal for this time of year. The earliest I
could find of both was 1999. That year, 32 shorebird species were
discovered in the state 21-30 August. There weren't all that many hot
spots: some reports from Conneaut, a few from Medusa Marsh, fewer from
spots in the interior of the state including Hoover Res for the best of
them, but many from the Crane Creek estuary at ONWR and the old Cedar Pt
causeway in Sheldon Marsh SNA.

Species, and maximum numbers seen at one spot, plus number of spots
where reported, follow for August 1999:

Black-bellied plover--3,4
Am. golden-plover--1,2
Semipalmated plover--75, 5
Killdeer--1750, 8
Am. avocet--22,3
G. yellowlegs--110,4
L. yellowlegs--485, 4
Solitary sandpiper--2, 2
Willet--1,1
Spotted sandpiper--3, 4
Upland sandpiper--1,1
Whimbrel--20, 4
Hudsonian godwit--9, 3
Marbled godwit--2, 5
Ruddy turnstone--1, 2
Red knot--1, 2
Sanderling--50, 4
Semipalmated sandpiper--200, 4
Western sandpiper--1, 1
Least sandpiper--100, 6
Western Sandpiper--2,1
White-rumped sandpiper--1,2
Baird's sandpiper--4, 3
Pectoral sandpiper--180, 5
Dunlin--1, 2
Stilt sandpiper--30, 4
Buff-breasted sandpiper--3, 3
Short-billed dowitcher--300, 5
Long-billed dowitcher--17, 2
Wilson's snipe--2, 2
Wilson's phalarope--3, 5
Red-necked phalarope--1, 4

In my opinion, none of these maxima is all that remarkable for Ohio in
August in recent decades, except that some are rather low. There are no
rarities. The 32 species overall is on the high side of average for
August, too. Other shorebirds reported later in 1999 included a piping
plover, a long-billed curlew, purple sandpiper (5), ruff (3), woodcock
(6), and red phalarope (6), for a fall season total of 38 species, the
highest overall in the past decade. This is a higher total than that
from other comparable species groups in the state, like waterfowl or
warblers, in the period. Shorebirds are our most diverse migrants.

In more recent Augusts, 2003 produced only 29 species, and 2004 thirty.
August 2005 provided forage for shorebirds at the
Miami-Whitewater Wetlands and Hoover Reservoir and Berlin Reservoir
inland, and Conneaut, Medusa Marsh, Pipe Creek and Pickerel Creek
wildlife areas, moist-soil units at ONWR, and the Cedar Point
Chaussee along the Lake--an unusually large number of sites. The high
single-day count of species was a nice 27, on 28 Aug, in or near ONWR.
The month's total was 32 species, including two piping plovers and an
out-of-season dunlin (1-3 alt-plumaged dunlins have been an August
staple near NW Lake Erie since 2004). A decent year for Hudsonian
godwits, with 85 reported. A spent Hurricane Katrina deposited a record
355 white-rumped sandpipers at Conneaut the 31st. Of course, other birds
made autumn 2005 most memorable, with little and Sabine's gulls in
August, magpies, white ibis, white-winged dove, m. frigatebird, gray
flycatcher, western kingbird, numerous Selasphorus hummers, and first
state records of cave swallow and green violetear.

In 2006, the August total was 31, with three ruffs the highlight.
Conneaut and Sandusky Bay spots were productive; inland,
Miami-Whitewater was OK, Hoover was not, and Wright Marsh in Wayne Co
and the Hardin Co wetland had a chance to shine. 2007 had 32 species,
including another ruff and a piping plover. Perhaps it was because upper
Hoover Reservoir was perfect for migrant shorebirds--great habitat so
close to a large urban area--that we had 26 species during the first
week of August last year.

The August of 2008 was remarkable, shorebird-wise, mostly for scarcity
of habitat. Conneaut delivered as usual, although the local humans did
the best they could to scare off birds. Few inland reservoirs, despite a
very dry month, produced mudflats until quite late in the month. The
Sandusky Bay wildlife areas--Pickerel Creek briefly, and Willow Point
longer--hosted reported shorebirds. Overall, it would have been a very
disappointing August had it not been for the unusual hydrology of the
Bellevue area, where many low-lying areas in agricultural land were
flooded, then gradually dried, inviting thousands of shorebirds in a
phenomenon last seen in 1933. More than anywhere else, this flooding
contributed to a good count of 24 species for the first week of August
in Ohio. The month's total was 31 species, with no remarkably high
numbers of any, except for four of the one rarity: black-necked stilt.

Are there trends here? We really don't see enough shorebirds in Ohio to
reliably detect population changes, but we can confirm that piping
plovers are recovering a bit. Recent nestings of black-necked stilts and
Wilson's phalaropes seem encouraging, but may merely reflect poor
conditions in their customary realms. Our regionally unique molt-staging
long-billed dowitchers have been hanging on, despite loss of habitat.
Over the past decade, the great northwestern marshes are playing a
diminishing role for shorebirds as managers struggle with invasive
plants and Bush-league budgets.

The numbers of shorebird species we see each August remain remarkably
stable, and only a few arrivals come later in fall--purple sandpipers
and red phalaropes mostly, now that a few summering non-breeding dunlins
seem to be regular. Ten years is too brief a period to be sure, but
reported numbers of certain species--knots, and the larger ones like
whimbrels, godwits, dowitchers, and willets--seem to be decreasing, even
though more and more observers are afield. As for habitat, only Conneaut
stands out as consistent year after year, despite boorish disturbances.
Many shorebird refugia of recent years--unfilled dredge-spoil
impoundments (Cleveland, Lorain, Huron, Toledo), marshes open to Lake
Erie like Metzger, etc.--are no more. Managed impoundments--at wildlife
areas, reservoirs, etc.--serve migrant shorebirds mostly when drawn down
for other reasons, except for the noteworthy Mill Creek Wildlife
Sanctuary (actually designed for shorebirds [!], with 24 species thus
far this year).

I believe overall numbers of shorebirds are falling in Ohio, some as
part of documented population decreases overall, but also because
stopover habitat here is growing scarcer. We continue to see similar
numbers of species because so many more observers are reporting them,
and perhaps because fewer available stopover habitats concentrate birds,
but even so in my brief time as an observer it has grown harder to see
20 species in a day here than it used to be. I doubt anyone did this
year. Do others who've been shorebirding in Ohio for many years agree?

Bill W
Columbus

Shorebirds of August - NW Ohio

From: Kenn K
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 12:07:15 -0400

Thanks to Bill W and Craig H for perspectives on shorebird migration
in the state. Craig mentioned that there had been a "deafening silence"
regarding shorebirds in Ottawa and Lucas Counties so I thought I'd provide a
little more info from here.

This area had extremely heavy rains in June and the beginning of July, and
extreme lack of rain since. Flooded farm fields in Ottawa Co. held large
numbers of shorebird migrants (e.g., hundreds of adult Lesser Yellowlegs and
Short-billed Dowitchers) in mid-July but those fields dried out rapidly
thereafter. Water levels were high through August in the most visible areas
of Metzger Marsh and Magee Marsh; there were obviously pockets of habitat
back in the interior of the marshes, judging by the numbers of Lesser
Yellowlegs and others flying around calling, but they weren't easily
viewable from the roads. The Crane Creek estuary had limited habitat,
mostly because of high water levels in Lake Erie and the creek itself; I
haven't been out there recently to see if it has improved. A lot of
shorebirds were using Ottawa NWR: on the single impoundment where
researchers have been banding, I saw 21 shorebird species (and hundreds of
individuals) on just three visits, including Marbled Godwits, Long-billed
Dowitcher, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Since this area wasn't generally
accessible to the public, I didn't see a reason to say much about it on the
listserve; but the Refuge staff makes it a point to provide stopover habitat
for shorebirds, even though this has to be juggled with all the other
demands of managing wetland areas.

Birders often concentrate on the areas with the best viewing, rather than
the areas with the best actual habitat, so some of us here in Ottawa County
have been slipping over next door for easy looks at thousands of shorebirds
in Sandusky, Seneca, and Erie Counties rather than prowling around the edges
of our local marshes. This probably contributes to the sense of nothing
being reported in Ottawa / Lucas Counties.

I agree with Craig that it was heartening to see good numbers of juveniles
of several shorebird species, indicating that they had a good breeding
season. I was impressed to be able to count 55 juv Stilt Sandpipers in one
sweep of the telescope at Bellevue on Aug. 22, and five juv Baird's
Sandpipers at another spot on the same date. There also have been excellent
numbers of juv Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs. It
remains to be seen what will happen with numbers of some other species whose
juveniles tend to arrive later than August, such as American Golden-Plover,
Dunlin, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Long-billed Dowitcher. Speaking of the
latter, I had only one adult Long-billed during August (and no juveniles
yet), despite a lot of careful looking and listening. Adults should be
staging and molting in NW Ohio during August, as Bill mentioned, and I can
only hope that they were back in the marsh somewhere and out of sight --
perhaps in some of the more extensive impoundments at Ottawa NWR, where I
had my one bird for the season.

Kenn K

Re: August Shorebirds

From: John P
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 13:22:16 -0400

I was in the Magee Marsh/ Ottawa NWR this past weekend. If there is any
accessible habitat, I was unable to find it. The estuary of Crane Creek was
high with no exposed mud. There were a lot of terns flying around. There was no
habitat in any of the accessible impoundments at Ottawa and no habitat at
Metzger either. I did see 2 Baird's sandpipers and a willet on the wildlife
beach at Magee Marsh on Sunday and a single Baird's on Monday. There were a
handful of shorebirds at the extreme north end of the Adam Grimm area off
Krause Road, but nothing unusual.

I was hoping for long-billed dowitchers
somewhere up there and saw none. Thank goodness the warblers and insects were
good around there. I had a prairie warbler and northern parula on the wildlife
beach Sunday. For those interested in insects, there was a striped saddlebags
and several hundred black saddlebags on the wildlife beach Sunday and several
southern dogface butterflies along the trail running north to the lake at
Ottawa. The striped saddlebags and dogface are both rarities in Ohio.

The thing that saddens me most is remembering the almost annual flocks of
long-billed dowitchers that used to stage at Metzger. Now I look out and see
Phragmites spreading through the marsh. What areas aren't densely vegetated
have high water. Hopefully the long-billed dowitchers are staging somewhere in
the marshes.

Re: August Shorebirds 2

From: Bill W
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 14:37:19 -0400

Yes, I share John's misgivings about the staging long-billed dowitchers
at Ottawa. I have expressed myself at length about this before, and will
say only that after the eradication of their habitat at Metzger, the
flock moved east, resorting to shallow wetlands not far from the Crane
Creek bridge, where I saw over a hundred when I went out with the Ottawa
census crew one September. The census results have reported decent
numbers--never as large as they once were--since that time, but I don't
know about 2008. Bolton & Szanto reported a contingent of ~200 there
last fall, seen on four occasions.

The census team stopped sending results to the Ohio Cardinal several
years ago, since which time the public has had to resort to reports on
the ONWRA web site http://www.onwra.com/ , which has erased its
archives; the only census report there now is that for March 2008. I
have belonged to the ONWRA since its inception in 1997, and complained
six months ago about the lack of records, without a reply. As far as I
know, anyone is still welcome to accompany and help the census-takers by
showing up on the first Sunday of any month---check the exact time and
location on the ONWRA site, if you can find the information. ONWR
managers have an enormous task keeping invasive plants in check up
there, but caving in to the duck lobby on Metzger was another thing
entirely.

Bill W

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