Fall Shorebirds of Seapoint
• Pectoral Sandpiper
• Purple Sandpiper
• Ruddy Turnstone
• Black-bellied Plover
• Greater Yellowlegs
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Shorebirds are one of the most difficult challenges for the casual birder, often daunting the experts. Most of these birds breed in the North American tundra regions during the brief Arctic summer, and pass through New England on their way south to their winter ranges. The fall migration season at Seapoint actually starts late summer, though a smattering of early migrants can show up anytime after the midsummer solstice. The larger mixed flocks begin to arrive in late July or early August, mostly composed of adult birds. Then the numbers really peak in late August and early September when the juveniles are also coming through. From there the numbers taper off toward the latter part of the fall. The migration is pretty much over with the arrival of Purple Sandpipers sometime in November, which take up residence here for the winter.
Seapoint is a stubby spit of grass and scrub poking into the Atlantic and flanked by Seapoint and Crescent Beaches just a few miles north of the New Hampshire border in Kittery Point, ME. The 2+ acres comprising Seapoint is managed by the Kittery Land Trust, while the beaches on either side are managed by the Town of Kittery Maine, and the salt marshes behind the beaches draining into Chauncey Creek are managed as part of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge's Brave Boat Harbor Division. Seapoint is just one of many stopovers for shorebirds migrating along the Atlantic coast, but it's the one I frequent most often and regularly document with photographs. It's not as extensive a habitat as Scarborough Marsh farther north, or Plum Island to the south, and we don't get the numbers and variety of these more choice stopovers, but it's still rich and varied enough to cut one's teeth on learning shorebirds.
All of the photographs in this article were taken in the immediate area of Seapoint, Seapoint Beach, Crescent Beach, and the salt marshes behind. I'm only including species that I've seen and fetched photographs for. I hope to revise and add more species in the future as I'm able to document them, and plan to develop a similar article for the spring migrants, which include some birds we don't see in the fall. Most of the shorebirds covered here fall into the sandpiper and plover families, especially the species of sandpipers belonging to the genus Calidris which are the most alike and hardest to tell apart. For each of these I've called out a number of field marks in a key to help distinguish one species or plumage from another.
Each of the questions above offer clues to a Calidris sandpiper's identification. Most of these peeps have wingtips as long or just a bit shorter than the tail, but not all. White edging in the upper wing and back feathers (scapulars) is often an indication of juvenile plumage, but not always! Leg colors of the different species vary and can help narrow choices down quickly, but as you'll see isn't as reliable as some of the other features. The presence of streaks or spots along the flank under the wing will differentiate some, along with how prominent the breast streaking is, how dark, and how defined the edge where it meets the white of the belly. And finally, the length, and shape of the bill are perhaps the most important and reliable feature for identification (bill color less so).
All the birds in this article are organized by size as an aid to their identification, starting with the smallest of all the peeps, the Least Sandpiper, and working up to the larger shorebirds. Wherever I can, I'll try to include a photo of a fall adult, fall juvenile, fall bird in-flight, and some combo shots that compare the species against others, especially those that are similar in size or color. Each bird has its own page, but if you want to skip around, the Table of Contents is always in the navbar at right. At the end I've chosen a few photographs with more than one species as a quiz to review.
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