Peeps! Peeps!

Oh Birders! There’s no better way to usher in September than to plunge into the simultaneously thrilling and frustrating morass of shorebird identification. Off we went to Townsend — a curious would-be town that never materialized, in Haldimand County, about an hour’s drive from Hamilton. In the 1970s, as a way to redirect some of the population from Toronto (and its suburbs), the provincial government of Ontario bought up thousands of acres of farmland near Hamilton, with the utopic (and earnest) hopes of building a “New Town” for the new millennium, which would house the thousands of employees of the rapidly developing industrial region in the area. They built wide roads, set up government buildings, a water tower, with the expectation that by 2001 Townsend would boast a population of 100,000. In the end, only 1,200 people moved to this New City of the Future, and all the plans for large factories for future technologies never materialized. Now the town stands abandoned (except for a small retirement community of 1500) feels like an eerie ghost-town.

Thankfully most stories have a happy ending: Townsend, the Dream City that never became a city, inadvertently became birding hub thanks to its fabulous sewage lagoon, which attracts migrating shorebirds in spectacular numbers. We didn’t see spectacular numbers of anything yesterday, since it wasn’t really a day that registers on the spectrum of the spectacular, but I did significantly improve my shorebird ID skills. (I hope. I think. We’ll see)

I immediately recognized a bird that looked Killdeer-ish, but with only one black neck stripe, and it turned out to be a Semipalmated Plover. It makes sense that the two share characteristics, since they’re both from the Charadrius genus. Funny — I’d always considered the Killdeer rather small, but next to the Semipalmated plover, it looked positively gargantuan (though not as monstrous as the mallard nearby). Size in birds is so difficult and so impossible to really understand when one sees a bird in isolation. And then I noticed dozens of similarly sized birds that all basically looked the same, but upon closer, more studied observation, all displayed subtle differences.

Semipalmated Plover!! Photo from here.

Semipalmated Plover!! Photo from here.

Looks a bit like this, right? Here's the Killdeer. Photo from here.

Looks a bit like this, right? Here’s the Killdeer. In real life the resemblance is even more striking. Trust me; they’re cousins. Photo from here.

Words like “slightly chunkier”, “darker stripes”, “brownish vs. greyish”, “greenish legs” wound their way around me, and I remembered why I have a love-hate thing going on with Shorebirds. Even under optimal lighting, I can barely distinguish greenish legs from yellowish legs from slightly darker legs. They all just look the same to me! And next to a Killdeer, nothing looks particularly chunky. Even my beloved Zeiss binoculars ended up being of little help here; with shorebirds, a scope is indispensable.

But then amidst the million peeps, we identified a Pectoral Sandpiper. (Forgive me, I’m using the word “we” rather liberally here. I did no identifying whatsoever.) Through the scope, I could see the bird’s brownish super-streaky feathers and did notice that it was significantly larger than the diminutive Semipalmated Plover and the even tinier Least Sandpiper walking about slightly hunched over, its bill hitting the water, furiously feeding on invertebrates or whatever the flavor of the day happened to be at Townsend Sewage Lagoon. (I do have to reiterate, birding a sewage lagoon — thrilling and productive as it is — does not rate high on the olfactory-experience scale. But so it goes)

Moving onwards through the catalog of Peeps, I encountered a Semipalmated Sandpiper, a Solitary Sandpiper who anxiously wiggled its entire body, the Spotted Sandpiper who performed the requisite tail-wagging dance for us, and a Stilt Sandpiper. There were also Yellowlegs, fanciful American Golden Plovers and Black Bellied Plovers and enough ducks in eclipse plumage to give me a slight headache.

On our way home, we stopped in Burlington and saw three Red-Necked Phalaropes bobbing nervously in the water, doing a spastic little dance as it swims on the edge of the shore. I’m pleased to say that Red-Necked Phalaropes are becoming an annual August sighting here at Birds and Words. Oh, and there were sod farms, a lonely wild turkey, and about a million starlings and cormorants.

In the end, a wonderful (and challenging) Tilley-hat clad morning full of peeps and other fine specimens. A perfect coda to a lovely summer.

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