This avocet was spotted by Skip Bettencourt on Norton Point Beach. Photo by Skip Bettencourt
This avocet was spotted by Skip Bettencourt on Norton Point Beach. Photo by Skip Bettencourt

Rare shorebirds on Island beaches

Story by E. Vernon Laux - July 27, 2006

The month of July continues to deliver rare and unusual birds to the Island. Last week, the first swallow-tailed kite ever seen in Massachusetts in July; this week, a couple of rare shorebirds, one big, one little, one a new bird for the Island, the other not seen here in decades. All in all, this is very exciting stuff for late July. The Vineyard is okay for shorebirds but can not compare with the "elbow" of Cape Cod, South Beach, and the Monomoy Islands which hosts many tens of thousands of shorebirds in migration, including many species that are such strong flyers that they rarely turn up anywhere they don't want to be. In terms of rare shorebirds, the Vineyard does not get many, making the events of this past week even more surprising.

The big shorebird surprise was an American avocet, a large, boldly marked shorebird from the Midwest that has not been seen here in decades. It was discovered on July 22 in Edgartown. These large, elegant shorebirds breed in the prairie states and provinces in the summer, retreating to the Gulf Coast and Mexico during the winter. They are a rare visitor to the Northeast and the maritime provinces in Canada.

Recently there had been an avocet in Nova Scotia for a couple of weeks, but it has since vanished. The next sighting of one in the region was on the morning of Tuesday, July 18, when a scientist/birder named Greg Hirth from Woods Hole found one lounging at the entrance to Salt Pond in Falmouth, about four miles, as the avocet flies, due north of West Chop in Tisbury. The bird promptly vanished from this location and was not seen again - that is, until Nancy Hugger and Skip Bettencourt of Chappaquiddick were walking along the shores of Katama Bay on Norton Point, the sandy barrier beach that connects Edgartown to Chappaquiddick, on Saturday, July 22. They were cruising along when a strange bird flew over them. At first, because of all the white, they assumed it was an egret heading at them but as it got closer they saw the long legs, beak, and black-and-white patterning on the wings. They observed it as carefully as they could, then went home and scoured their bird books.

After looking at all options there was no question in their minds, it was an American avocet. Never content with an unsatisfying, fly-by look at an unfamiliar bird, they went back the next day and found it again. This time, they had great views through binoculars and they were impressed by the many distinctive features of this handsome and colorful wader. Skip brought his digital camera along and managed some impressive shots of this breeding adult female.

Avocets are dimorphic, meaning males and females are different, in this case the female has a longer, more curved bill than the male. The pictures clearly show this bird as having a strongly curved beak, making it a female. Avocets are always rare in the northeast and there has not been one gracing Vineyard shores for several decades. The bird may have arrived here as early as July 18 but was first seen on July 22 and was seen again on July 23, then word got out and many observers saw the bird on July 24. More on this bird in next week's column.

As so often happens, birders go out to see a rarity and find other good birds. The effect of putting a lot of skilled observers in an area generates more sightings and in good birding areas the effect seems to magnify. At any rate, Alan Keith of Chilmark, hot in pursuit of the avocet, was walking down the beach, armed with his telescope and binoculars but not his digital camera, much to his chagrin, when he stopped to look at a small group of sandpipers. Close to this group, he was stunned when mixed in with the semipalmated sandpipers; he saw a bright red-colored sandpiper, the same size as the others.

The rest of the English-speaking (and non English- speaking) birders in the world call small sandpipers stints. Alan Keith has been birding all over the globe and instantly recognized this bird as a breeding (alternate) plumaged red-necked stint (Calidris ruficollis), a bird that definitely should not be hanging out on a shoreline anywhere in eastern North America. The species' normal range is the Old World, breeding in northeastern Siberia and recently discovered in extreme northwestern Alaska, migrating south to Southeast Asia and Australia, and south to New Zealand to spend the winter.

Suffice it to say this species had never been seen on the Island before, although records for it in the northeast have been rapidly increasing and the species has become almost annual in the past five years. There is currently one in coastal Connecticut and one (possibly the same bird) was seen at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham on July 18. Unfortunately, the bird was not seen by other observers as this column hit deadline, but hopefully it will be relocated and photographed by the time you read this.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

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