Rare Sandpipers, Backyard Owls, Ant-eating Gulls

Aug 16, 2017

The small sandpipers known as “peeps” are the bane of beginning beach birders everywhere. Easily overlooked as they scurry around on beaches and mudflats, these mousy, gray-brown shorebirds seem to offer little to the casual observer of birds. But taking the time to sort through them can bring fame and fortune to anyone with the requisite patience and aptitude. O-K, maybe not fortune, but two local birders did earn some serious bragging rights recently thanks to their sharp eyes and their peep knowledge.

Sue Finnegan and John Pratt were sorting through Semipalmated Sandpipers last week at Morris Island in Chatham when something a little different caught their eyes. Among the dozens of gray and white sandpipers was a slightly smaller individual with warm amber edging all of the feathers of the back and wings and washed across its face and neck. While subtle, these colors told them they were looking at something more exotic, something maybe quite rare. After consulting with some expert birders who helped them identify their find, they were ready the next day to announce that they had indeed found something quite rare, a sandpiper of the Old World Arctic known as a Little Stint.

In Europe and Asia, the small sandpipers are known as “stints." Our common species in this group are the Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, and both can now be seen in our area anywhere there are shorebirds. And every once in a while, one of their Eurasian cousins gets off course on its way to their wintering grounds in India or Africa, and find themselves here on Cape Cod. This Little Stint now in Chatham represents only the 5th ever record for Massachusetts. Birders from at least as far as Connecticut have come to look for this little guy, which is great because if there was one thing we needed on the Cape this August it was more tourists in cars. We’re currently trying to convince this bird to leave and come back in February.

Moving from the mudflats to your backyard, late August is a good time to listen for Eastern Screech Owls in your neighborhood. For reasons I have never quite understood, these small, ubiquitous owls become especially vocal in late August, long after breeding season and territoriality should have ended. If you have trees, you probably have screech owls, so keep an ear out for their eerie trilling calls, which sound to me as if the ghost of a tiny horse is trying to get your attention. Because I am a bird guy, my ears are tuned to the “all birds, all the time channel," which means I can usually hear them over the television or the window fans, but you may want to arrange for some quiet time in the yard to listen for them.

There’s yet another late summer ornithological/entomological phenomenon that you can watch for when you’re out at the beach. At Nauset Beach the other day I noticed a suspicious looking flock of a few hundred gulls swirling around in the air above the dunes. Having seen this before at places like nearby Coast Guard Beach, I knew this was a flock of mostly Laughing Gulls, and that they were feasting on a swarm of flying ants. Sure enough, our group was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of airborne ants, part of a mass emergence from nearby colonies looking to expand to new areas. Gulls are opportunists, and some of the smaller species are accomplished flycatchers when they find these ant swarms, behaving like giant swallows as they dart acrobatically around snapping them out of midair.

Whether it’s rare sandpipers, backyard owls, or ant-munching gulls, I hope you are getting out and paying attention to birds in these waning days of summer. Just try and do it without getting on Route 6 – I’m having a hard enough time getting anywhere.

Mark Faherty is Science Coordinator at Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.