Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012: So What Was THE Bird of the Day?

         Sunday, February 26, 2012, I decided to return to Bear Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) to photograph the Tundra Swans on Marys House Pond at sunrise.  This is an activity that I do every year because it is one of the most beautiful experiences in which a nature-lover can indulge in the chill of a cold February dawn. 

Tundra Swans on Marys House Pond -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012
Tundra Swans -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012

         I will post several more photos of the swans and describe more fully the sense of wonderment aroused by viewing the exquisite routine of these handsome birds taking flight in a future edition of the blog.  Because, unbelievable as it may seem, the Tundra Swans were NOT THE Bird of the Day for myself nor for several other birders who converged on Bear Island WMA throughout the day from all over the state.  Now, our birding together was not an organized event.  Myself, I had arranged at the last minute the night before to meet my birding buddy, Carl Broadwell, there.  A few others had arranged to travel with or to meet another birding buddy.  Haphazardly, many of us found each other there Sunday morning.  A couple of other birding buddies called me during the day to arrange a meeting place at Bear Island also.  Before I left for the day in the mid-afternoon, I had birded with 11 other people!  A horde of photographers from the Carolinas' Professional Photographers Association also arrived at  dawn to photograph the Swans.  Though I did come for the Swans, I also came for another reason.  We birders all came for that same reason.  So what brought us together?-- our quest for THE Bird of the Day!

       As such, you must now be wondering:  What was THE Bird of the Day?  At Bear Island, so many possibilities exist as the birdlife there is rich and diverse.  Was it the gleaming American White Pelicans who float effortlessly over the marshes and who often roost with the Tundra Swans on Marys House Pond at night?

American White Pelicans with Tundra Swans on Marys House Pond -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012

No, the graceful American White Pelicans, though awe-inspiring, did not capture the title of THE Bird of the Day.

       Nothing quite defines elegance as do these marvelous American Avocets!

American Avocets on Marys House Pond -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012

Yet, they did not qualify for the nomination.  

        How about the exotic escapee-from-somewhere, the Black Swan, that had been sighted frequently in the Bear Island WMA over the past week? 

Black Swan -- Bear Island WMA -- February 20 , 2012
Black Swan with American Coots -- Bear Island WMA -- February 20, 2012

Well, a few birders were interested in seeing him though he cannot be counted on any list since he does not qualify as a "countable" bird.  He is not truly a wild bird which perchance flew here from his native Australia.  The SC Department of Natural Resources (DNR) folks believe he may have escaped from a neighboring property.  I had already seen this "Black Beauty" Monday, February 20.   Thus, no, not only was the Black Swan missing in action Sunday, he simply was not of much interest to most of the birders who came together in a quest Sunday.

        I did see some of my favorite species, such as this perky White-Throated Sparrow ....

White-Throated Sparrow -- Bear Island WMA -- February 28, 2012

and this magnificent Red-Headed Woodpecker creating a new nesting hole!.

Red-Headed Woodpecker -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012

I also captured some of my sharpest images ever of a White-Breasted Nuthatch ....

White-Breasted Nuthatch -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012
White-Breasted Nuthatch -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012

.... eating poop!.  Though all of these candidates were interesting in their own ways, they simply could not compete with THE Bird of the Day!

              And so, DRUM ROLL PLEASE!  THE Bird of the Day, in rather plain Jane plumage, a very rare visitor to our state, was .... a lovely-for-birders Hudsonian Godwit, first identified by Paul Serridge and reported to Carolina Bird Listserv on Friday, September 24 by Jeff Click, both of the Greenville County Bird Club.

Hudsonian Godwit -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012

            For those of us who arrived at Bear Island at dawn, we waited out the departure of the swans -- because who wants to miss that show! -- before continuing down the dike to look for the Hudsonian Godwit in what reportedly seemed to be his preferred corner of Marys House Pond.  Funny though, the nature photographers did not stick around to look for the bird.  I guess they just did not realize how special it is.  And initially, we did not see him either though we were searching.  Ah well!  So we left the dike and then ran into others who decided to go down the dike to look for themselves.  Lucky for us that they did!  By the time they went out onto the dike, he was there in his corner and they called us so that we could join them!  The morning was overcast as the photos will show.   For size reference, I took a few photos of this Hudsonian with other shorebird species.

Hudsonian Godwit with American Avocet, Long-Billed Dowitcher and Dunlin -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012

Hudsonian Godwit with Dunlin -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012
             After watching the bird for awhile, we left to bird other parts of the WMA.  Once the sun came out towards noon, though, I wanted to return to attempt better-lit photos.  There he was, still in his preferred corner of the pond!  That was when I was able to capture the image below.  I sat on the dike eating my lunch hoping the bird would come closer if I sat still.  I had received late morning calls from my birding buddies, Andy Harrison and Aaron Given, asking me if I had seen the bird.  Thus, I was also waiting on their arrival to help them see the bird.
Hudsonian Godwit -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012
            Just before they arrived, all of the shorebirds took flight.  Something had spooked them.  I do not know what.  The Hudsonian Godwit also left but circled a couple of times ... as though it did not really want to leave.  This allowed me to obtain some rather conclusive diagnostic photos of his wing patterns, and to ooo and ahhh as well!  His foraging appearance may be plain Jane but in flight, he was more striking!  Unfortunately, I could not track him well enough to report where he had gone.  But considering his propensity for that corner, I was hopeful, we would relocate him.
Hudsonian Godwit -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012

Hudsonian Godwit -- Bear Island WMA -- February 26, 2012

              When Andy, Aaron and crew arrived, they scanned the pond with their scopes and spotted him on the far side.  We decided to go there in our cars.  When we arrived there, the guys quickly found the bird via their scopes again, heading back across the pond to his favorite corner.  This time he was still close enough for the guys to get satisfactory views of his field marks through the scopes.  I decided to call it a day and I left the guys to continue birding in Bear Island.  I confess, though, as always, it was difficult to leave.  The weather had cleared and the birds were beautiful.  And on this day in particular, our Hudsonian Godwit was strikingly so!

          For this post, I did some research on the species on a few different sites mentioned below to try to learn a bit more.  The Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica) is one of 4 Godwit species and is perhaps the least well-known in terms of its life history.  The population was once thought to be more limited in size than it actually is due to a lack of knowledge of its very remote breeding & wintering sites and migration staging sites.  However, research in the later half of the twentieth century has increased our knowledge of such sites, and thus the estimated world population is now proposed to be between 50,000 and 70,000 birds according to The Birds of North America Online (BNA Online) reference site. You can see a range map for this species from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) on their species account of this bird here on the CLO's All About Birds website .Thus, its risk factor for extinction is not as dire as once thought.  In 1988,  The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)  listed the bird as "Near Threatened" on its  IUCN Red List of species, a list that tracks extinction risks for the animal and plant life of our planet.  In 2008, it was listed as "Least Concern." 

         This is a species which truly makes migration a test of endurance.  Not only does it fly from its sub-arctic breeding grounds on the tundra of Alaska and Canada to Southern South America, but it also flies several thousands of miles non-stop at a time!    On its southbound route, most birds, those breeding in Alaska as well as Canada, are known to stage in areas of Canada and then, fly eastward towards the Atlantic. Most of the eastern population of these birds appear to fly 5000 km non-stop from James Bay in Canada over the western Atlantic to South America!  During its northbound migration, first arrivals to North America generally occur in late March - early April.  This fact makes its appearance here in South Carolina in late February a very unusual sighting indeed.  Also, the birds are generally known to migrate northward through the middle of the US, west of the Mississippi.  Sightings of individuals during migration are sporadic over a rather narrow range.  You can see a range map for this species from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) on their species account of this bird here on the CLO's All About Birds website.  They typically arrive on their northern breeding grounds in May, make and raise babies, and then begin staging for their southbound migration in late June through July with departures from these locales occurring from late July through early September with the juveniles being the last to depart.  Research also suggests that this species does not make use of traditional stopover sites as do other species.  Rather, its selection of stopover sites seems to be more dependent on current weather factors and on-the-ground conditions.  Quite the hardy, world traveler, I would say!

        After having learned so much about the migration patterns of this species, I am even more awed by his visit to our state!  I am also extremely pleased about this addition to my life list knowing how rare he is for our neck of the woods and I am equally delighted to have shared this experience with so many other SC birders (new friends and old!) this past Sunday morning.  Let's hope this endurance athlete makes a good, long and productive life for himself.  The typical life span for this species is unknown although their brethren Marbled Godwits are known to live as long as 29 years!  Who knows?  Perhaps our bird will find this East Coast migration to his liking and  I will be able see and photograph him again next February when I go to Bear Island to see the Tundra Swans at dawn!  I would nominate him for THE Bird of the Day again!

Elphick, C. S., and J. Klima. 2002. Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica). In The Birds of North America, No. 629 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. <>. Downloaded on 29 February 2012.
Walker, Brad M., Nathan R. Senner, Chris S. Elphick and Joanna Klima. 2011. Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: 

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