Pectoral Sandpiper

Choosing destinations for an August Avid Birders trip is easy in one respect but difficult in another. The easy part is knowing what type of habitat to look for – it’s August, we are in Ohio, so shorebirds are our targets and mud flats are their homes. The hard part is finding shorebird habitat. In pre-settlement times, the Lake Erie marshes, Sandusky Bay, and many inland ponds and lakes must have provided huge areas of very shallow water and exposed mud flats to entice migrating shorebirds.

Things have changed since then. Neither agricultural nor urban lands are likely to have seasonal mud flats. Until very recently, wildlife areas and refuges have been managed solely for waterfowl, such as ducks and geese, kept filled with water by human intervention. Fortunately for shorebirds and birders, national and state wildlife managers have started to recognize that ponds and impoundments can and should be managed for shorebirds and other species as well as for waterfowl. Not so fortunately, these changes in management practice have been slow and inconsistent, meaning that we never really know where shorebird habitat might appear. Moreover, the emergence of mud flats near larger bodies of water, such as reservoirs, is driven at least in part by summer rainfall timing and amounts, as well as by water management decisions.

Pectoral SandpiperAbundant summer rains have kept some otherwise productive locations too full of water to be useful for shorebirds aficionados. For example, water levels in our Columbus area reservoirs have been consistently high this year. Lake Erie water levels have been high as well, meaning that some areas such as the Crane Creek estuary have deep water. Would our wildlife areas and refuges come through?

Come through they did! We found some of the best shorebird habitat in new locations: Celotex Marsh and small ponds on the western side of Willow Point. Amazingly, none of the Avid Birders knew of either of these spots until a week ago! Considering that many of our group have birded extensively in Ohio for decades, the notion that we could find unexplored shorebird habitat is astonishing indeed.

Pintail HenCelotex Marsh was our first destination. Located along East Lockwood Road on the north side of Sandusky Bay, it was an easy in addition to our itinerary that often includes other spots in the same general area. When our first car arrived, we found a few common shorebirds, including Pectoral and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Moments later, the second car in our party showed up. After exchanging greetings, we realized that the number of birds had increased. A third carload arrived within a few minutes and somehow the number of birds had increased again. We did not see birds flying in, so how are they arriving? Materializing from Star Trek transporter beams? Shuttling up from subterranean caverns? Or merely strolling in from cover in adjacent grasses? However they got there, we were glad to see them and spent quality time sorting through the flocks and locating species such as White-rumped, Least, and Solitary Sandpipers.

Our next stop was East Harbor State Park. A short walk took us to an area on the north side of the park where we had previously enjoyed good luck. The water was a little deeper than usual, leaving only small areas exposed for shorebirds. However, a sandbar hosted several dozen roosting terns, including Caspian, Common, and one Forster’s.

We then headed for the south side of the bay and Willow Point Wildlife Area. We quickly checked our customary locations here – a pair of small pools just northeast of the parking area – but these were filled with deep water. But a quick walk to the west produced a bonanza: a very accessible area here was packed with shorebirds. Highlights included a Baird’s Sandpiper and at least four Wilson’s Phalaropes.

Red KnotAfter we gobbled down lunch in a welcome patch of shade near the parking lot, we made our way to Pipe Creek Wildlife Area. Along with some of the more common species, a previously-reported Marbled Godwit was obligingly present and visible; a snoozing Wilson’s Snipe occasionally lifted its head to show off its extraordinary bill; a Northern Harrier made a thrilling low-altitude pass mere feet from us; at least three Snowy Egrets posed for inspection; and a single Black-bellied Plover stood out on an otherwise deserted strip of land. Perhaps our best find of the day was a Red Knot, a rare visitor to Ohio in fall migration.

Scanning for shorebirds at Pipe CreekWe had promised ourselves a stop at Killdeer Planes Wildlife Area, where we had heard that one of the large ponds offered good habitat. Apparently recent rains had filled much of the impoundment, though, and our only new birds for the day here were Wood Ducks floating placidly among the vegetation. A few among our group caught sight of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, but that bird eluded the others who arrived moments later.

Wwe counted this a very successful day. Good weather (a high in the low 80’s, humid but sunny and breezy through most of the day), good companionship, good habitat, and – best of all – good birds. Our list of 73 species seen is shown below.

Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Cooper’s Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Spotted Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Marbled Godwit
Red Knot
Baird’s Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Wilson’s Snipe
Wilson’s Phalarope
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Caspian Tern
Common Tern
Forster’s Tern
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
“Traill’s Flycatcher” (alder/willow)
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Kingbird
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
“Baypoll” Warbler
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow