Sunday, August 5, 2012

Shorebird Workshop, August 3-5, 2012

Dave and I just got back from the Shorebird Workshop led by Doug Buri and Bob Janssen, based in Milbank, South Dakota but with field trips in both South Dakota and Minnesota. It's three days of just enough classroom time to get some basics, then as much field experience as possible, assisted by these two highly knowledgeable and nice-as-can-be instructors. You can study field marks from a book, but there's nothing like seeing the birds in real settings to improve your identification skills.

Workshop members get up close to the water

Here was a life bird for me: the Baird's sandpiper, found on the shore of Bitter Lake. I wasn't at all familiar with this bird before this weekend, but I know it now, because its wing primaries (long flight feathers) extend beyond the tail and it has smudgy brown markings on its breast. The other shorebird with wings this long in relation to its tail is the white-rumped sandpiper, which is grayer, rather than brown, and has clear, not smudged, dark streaks on its breast.

Baird's Sandpiper at Bitter Lake

Some shorebirds are very distinctive, but others require some practice to tell them apart. We focused on getting familiar with approximately eight shorebirds that are fairly common in South Dakota and western Minnesota during migration. If you know the common ones, something different will stand out when you do see it.

I loved the South Dakota and western Minnesota landscapes we visited, in picture-perfect weather, especially on Saturday and Sunday after a storm had cleared the air. On a large plateau west of Milbank known as the Coteau des Prairies, where Bitter Lake is, we learned that rising waters in natural basins that have no outlet for their water have overwhelmed farms and homes with no hope for respite. Here's a good article about this phenomenon. 

Bitter Lake near Waubay, SD

Bitter Lake has grown immensely in the past two decades -- from a slough only two feet in depth and 2,000 acres in size, it has grown to a lake of 3,500 acres and is South Dakota's largest natural body of water, according to this article on The article cited in the previous paragraph says it used to be a mile from the town of Waubay, but now it laps at the southern edge of town. We saw Western and Clark's grebes there, as well as egrets, a Caspian tern (a life bird for me), the Baird's sandpiper (see photo above), and a variety of other shorebirds.

Other highlights of the trip included several buff-breasted sandpipers, some marbled godwits, a Wilson's snipe, some dowitchers, and an osprey carrying a fish, seen on our way back from a quick side trip to Thielke Lake a few of us took at the end of the day Saturday.

Please take a look at a slideshow of photos from the weekend (below). I encourage anyone who is interested to sign up for any of Doug and Bob's excellent workshops. Besides the August shorebird workshop, they offer an early-October sparrow workshop and the Fort Pierre birding workshop, covering birds found on the mixed grass prairie and the Missouri River, in May. All come highly recommended, and we hope to attend these in the future.

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