Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shorebird in a Potato Field

They are harvesting potatoes in Delaware right now, the state’s #1 fresh market crop. Driving along Route 9 just south of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday, I could see red and white potatoes lying exposed on the surface of the ground in a big field. All was quiet that morning as I scanned for Killdeer, Horned Larks, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, and Pectoral Sandpipers, but I was really hoping for Buff-breasted and Upland Sandpipers. The latter two species are the ones seen least often and so a view of either is relished by birders. Both species had been reported recently at another potato farm a few miles south.

On Monday, I was back again and the farmers were working to harvest those spuds. Word must have gone out to the birds. Many of those expected birds had shown up, but sorting through distant birds in a field takes a bit of diligence and patience.

It surprised me that many of the birds were quite close to the machinery, a giant harvester and an open truck that received the potatoes dumped from the harvester's conveyor belt. As the two worked in tandem, moving down the rows, it seemed the birds flew out of the way only at the last minute.

After about a half hour of standing on the shoulder of the highway, with cars zipping by and the giant dust clouds occasionally obscuring our view and coating our optics, two others and I finally spotted an Upland Sandpiper. It was a beauty, only the second one I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t feeding at that time, but walking a bit, then stopping, sometimes disappearing into and reappearing from the furrows. It posed frequently, giving us adequate time to photograph it. The sun lit up the buffy feather edges which glistened like gold, as did its facial feathers. It was strikingly elegant and graceful in a field of dead potato vines, a marvelous sight. We never could find a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, but the “Uppie” alone made my day.

Upland Sandpipers use fields as staging areas in migration on their way to the pampas of Argentina where they spend up to eight months. It was hard to imagine that this species was extensively hunted in the U.S. until the 1920s for food, but also for target practice. In South America, too, it was on restaurant menus. Its eggs were also eaten. Although the bird we saw was using a potato field being harvested, the conversion of grasslands to cropland in much of its breeding range has adversely impacted the species.

I watched this bird with the greatest respect, knowing that the next leg of its journey will be over 4,000 miles. Will it make it to its South American destination? Will it live long enough to visit a Delaware potato field once again? I know I plan to visit Delaware again during potato harvesting time, but I will have to travel only 100 miles.

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