Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Shorebird count

Writing this from a New York City apartment, I look outside and see snow falling down. How far away the tropical heat of last weekend's shorebird count in El Salvador already seems! Here are some snapshots of that very enjoyable experience.

These are my co-counters Roselvy (front) and Karla, with Juanito, a Barra de Santiago park ranger in the back of the boat. This was the fourth year of this volunteer shorebird count, which takes place twice a year, in February and again in April, and is organized by the Salvadoran Ministry of Environmental Affairs. Last year February I was also part of Roselvy's team. This year, Roselvy was again our team leader, Karla provided her vehicle and companionship, while Juanito assisted us Saturday afternoon on the Barra de Santiago part of our busy program. He enjoys local semi-legendary status as "the man who found the penguin". A few years ago, a very lost Galapagos Penguin washed up on the beach at Barra de Santiago, and Juanito told us the story of how he found it.

Saturday we started the day early - 4:30 AM early - to get from our free lodging up in El Imposible all the way down to Cara Sucia, a small coastal town near the border with Guatemala where we had breakfast at 6 AM. After that, we visited four different sites that day, including Garita Palmera and Barra de Santiago. We were still counting shorebirds as the sun was setting, and had a boat ride back among the mangroves in the dark.

Spotted Sandpipers were common at every site. Here's a sequence showing two individuals engaged in what is probably a boundary dispute over their respective winter feeding territories.

The birds did not call, but there was much strutting left and right along an invisible line that probably forms the border between their territories.

Perhaps one of these birds was interested in expanding its territory, but then found the neighbor not wanting any of that.

We watched them carrying on for several minutes. I was surprised to see them behave this way, for there appeared to be very little aggression involved. It wasn't one bird telling another bird to buzz off, it was more like a silent dance not unlike the courtship behavior performed in the water by certain grebes. In fact, I wasn't even 100% sure that this wasn't courtship behavior. A territory dispute seemed more likely, for these birds after all were on the wintering ground, in winter plumage.

A cool find was this American Oystercatcher, a bird we didn't see last year. Species we saw this year included both yellowlegs; Least, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers; Sanderling; Ruddy Turnstone; Willet; Whimbrel; Marbled Godwit; Black-necked Stilt; Black-bellied, Wilson's and Semipalmated Plovers; both dowitchers (three Long-billed, the majority Short-billed); and a Pectoral Sandpiper.

Here's our team just having finished the last field site Sunday afternoon. It was pretty intense but a lot of fun.

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