Baird’s Sandpipers

A couple of days ago was only the fourth time I’ve seen a Baird’s Sandpiper, and it was the first time I saw more than one.

The tide was on its way up, though still out quite far (it has been a minus tide maybe an hour before) as I made my way from the beach access near the river mouth toward the access at the sea otter sign bench (formerly the battle site sign bench, though signs have just recently been changed). This time of year it’s pretty typical to have lots of gulls (present), a fair flock of Black Turnstones (present), and scattered smaller shorebirds including Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers. I was not surprised when a flock of 10 or so small shorebirds took off from in front of where I was walking and landed a short distance away. I assumed they were probably all Least Sandpipers, or perhaps a mix of Least and Western Sandpipers. Checking more carefully with my binoculars in order to get a better count and confirm the presumed id, I was a little surprised when I saw a bird that didn’t seem right.


Least Sandpiper (front) foraging with Baird’s Sandpiper (behind)

It looked sort of like a Least Sandpiper, but with on right next to it, it was easy to see the difference in size. It had black legs, so I tried to shoehorn it into being a Western Sandpiper, but the coloring was wrong, and it was too big for them as well. I became aware that there were actually several of these mystery birds, but I just couldn’t get them to fit into any of the commonly occurring migrants here. I found myself wondering if they were some sort of variant I just hadn’t seen before of a common species.

When faced with such uncertainty, my impulse is to take pictures and try to figure it out later. Although sometimes I might miss things as a result of this practice, I think the overall the practice has served me well and I’ve learned far more than I would have otherwise. In this case I grabbed a few shots, and was later able to confirm the identity by sending them on to more knowledgeable birders with my best guess.

Still not knowing what they were, I recorded them as Western Sandpipers with the intention of changing that when I figured it out at home. I estimated there were 5 of these shorebirds, and continued on.

As I neared home and was reflecting on the birds and still trying to fit them into one of the species I’m most familiar with. I noticed the thought ‘average sandpiper’ come to mind, and let it go as it didn’t seem to fit Dunlin (which is the species I had been considering). It was only later after I had a chance to look in the books and realized Baird’s Sandpiper was the most likely candidate that I remembered I’ve described Baird’s Sandpipers as being like the average small sandpiper. Their bill isn’t too long and not too short, they’re in the middle size-wise, they have black legs (like most do), their color pattern is kind of middling brown, with nothing in particular that seems (to me) to stand out. It seems my subconscious may have been trying to tell me what they were, but my conscious mind was stuck on the common species.

In addition to the size difference, the other thing that stuck out to me about the Baird’s Sandpipers was the pale edging on the back and wing feathers as well as the overall brown tone lacking in any real rufous coloring (like I would expect in a Western Sandpiper).

Baird’s Sandpipers have only been reported in Sitka a few times, with most of those in the spring. J. Dan Webster reported seeing them in August 1937 and July 1938, Marge and Tedin’s records have reports in August, late October and early November from 1981.

I checked again yesterday, and did not find them down at the beach.

Questions:

  • How often are Baird’s Sandpipers actually moving through the Sitka area? (annual in small numbers for short stays? Typically just flying over and not landing? Less than annual?)
  • Does the migration route of Baird’s Sandpipers differ significantly between spring and fall? (it does for many migrant species)
  • Is it just random they showed up here this year, or was there something about the weather that influenced it?

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Rain Showers – Heavy at Times

“Rain showers, heavy at times” is a fairly common phrase in Sitka area weather forecasts, especially as we move into the fall season. There were a couple of times today when the rain came down so hard, the pounding on the roof made it easy to imagine the proverbial buckets being poured out from above.

I had some stuff to pick up at the airport, so I made a quick stop by John Brown’s Beach trail to check out some plants I had wanted to look at the fruit of. Unfortunately, they were further along than I had hoped, but I was able to get some photos and collections. (I’ll post more about that later.)

This afternoon Rowan and I walked around the park (Connor has been going down by himself earlier in the day). No Baird’s Sandpipers today, but there were several Least Sandpipers still hanging about. Also a lone juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull out on the flats.

I’ve noticed Song Sparrows singing from time to time recently, and it occurs to me that perhaps they are getting territorial now as wintering birds start to come back and they are setting up winter territories.

[pictures to come]

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Totem Park Walks

A cloudy day punctuated with some showers at times. High temperatures are still holding up in the upper 50s and lower 60s, but I don’t expect that to last much longer. For the last couple of weeks it’s been getting dark noticeably earlier, and it seems like once a week or so I’m surprised by how early it is given the level of light.

While down at the park this morning, I saw a flock of small sandpipers take off in front of me. Assuming initially they were probably all Least Sandpipers (with maybe a Western or two mixed in), a more careful look revealed several that didn’t seem right for our regular species. I grabbed some photos and continued on. Once home, I decided they were likely Baird’s Sandpipers. I took another walk down to the park this afternoon to try for more photos and a more careful count. I never saw them in a single group, and they were difficult to see out on the beach at times, but as best I could tell, there were 7 or 8. Along with them were a handful of Least Sandpipers, 3 or 4 Semipalmated Plovers, and bunches of gulls.

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Slender Bog-orchid (Platanthera stricta)


Slender Bog Orchid (Platanthera stricta) along Beaver Lake Trail

One of several fairly common orchids around Sitka, I have seen the Slender Bog Orchid (Platanthera stricta) in a variety of habitats, from low elevation forests, open meadows and fens, and up to the alpine. With relatively small green flowers, it’s not an especially showy plant by orchid standards. Plants usually at least several inches, and I have found them over a foot. The appearance of the plant seems (to my minimally trained eyes) fairly variable. That is probably due in part to growing conditions (shaded vs. sunny), as well as just variability within the species. There are other similar green orchids that are known to occur in Southeast Alaska, but around Sitka at least, it seems that almost everything I find ends up being this one.

Questions:

  • Does this species require specific fungi to grow?
  • What pollinates the flowers?
  • Does anything eat these?

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Forest and Muskeg Trail and Whale Park

Today was Connor’s 13th birthday and also the day my grandpa would have turned 97 (if I’m remembering correctly that he was born in 1917).

I wanted to follow up on some ground dogwood (Cornus sp) leaf mine observations, so we went out to the Forest and Muskeg Trail and walked up a short distance. Connor and Rowan helped me find additional leaf mines in salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and large-leaf avens (Geum macrophyllum) as well as the dogwoods I had already noticed.

Along the way back, two Steller’s Jays showed up and seemed at least a little bit curious about them. We tried imitating their calls that were something like “tshhhh tshhhh tshhhh ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch”. Really, we were mostly just trying for the rhythm and feel, as I’m not sure how to produce the actual sound of their voice. In any case, that seemed to arouse their curiosity even more, and they spent several minutes in the trees near where we were.

This afternoon we spent some time celebrating Connor’s birthday at Whale Park. The water seems to have lost the green color it had earlier this summer. Connor and Rowan had fun running around on the slope looking after squirrels and picking huckleberries. Rowan also found a ghost moth (Gazoryctra sp) resting on part of the railing.

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Muskeg Earth Tongue (Geoglossaceae)

I am not so good at identifying fungi, but earth tongues seem relatively easy to identify to family (Geoglossaceae) and maybe even genus, but after that things get quite a bit more challenging. These were seen in a patch of muskeg that is a little different then most of what I see around here. Perhaps it is closer to the rich fen side of things. The most obvious differences to me are nagoonberries (not cloudberries) and stunted spruce (instead of stunted pine). Regardless, while I’ve found earth tongues a couple of different times before, this was the first time growing in a muskeg. If I’m lucky, maybe that will help narrow down the choices.

A UK fungus site intro to earth tongues says that as a group they favor nutrient poor sites, including sphagnum, sand dunes, and lawns (which apparently can be nutrient poor?). The other locations I’ve found them include a patch of more or less bare sand/gravel (it was kept mostly bare on account of being part of a trail), and a couple of different lawns around town.
Questions:

  • What species are these (and are they different from the others I’ve found in different habitats)?
  • What ecological role do they have? (are they decomposers?)
  • What prevents them from being able to do well in nutrient rich sites?
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