Sunday, August 20, 2006

Shorebirds and their habitats

On Saturday the 19th, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory held a workshop on shorebird identification, and after the indoor presentation we had a follow-up field trip out into the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Our purpose was to study the i.d. of the birds, not to run up a big list, but still we had 16 species of shorebirds. Highlights included both species of dowitchers (with five adult Long-billeds in various stages of beginning to molt, and some beautiful juvenile Short-billeds looking typical of the expected bright race hendersoni), molting adult Stilt Sandpipers, a pristine juvenile Baird's Sandpiper, and a very odd Wilson's Phalarope -- apparently a juvenile that had gotten discolored by some oil or some other pollutant, giving it some very dark marking on one side of the head. (In terms of seasonality, the rarest bird was a female Bufflehead -- there are no August records listed in Birds of the Toledo Area by Matt Anderson et al.) Some participants in our workshop also got to see a Marbled Godwit out on the Crane Creek beach before or after the event.

There has been some good discussion recently about creating artificial habitat for migrant shorebirds. As one who moved from the middle of the Sonoran Desert to the middle of the Lake Erie Marshes, I've had a lot of occasion to think about artificial vs natural habitats (and especially natural-but-managed habitats) for shorebirds. When I lived in Tucson I could go out and expect to see virtually every shorebird within 30 miles, because they were all on a few artificial wetlands. Here in northwest Ohio I can never hope to see more than a fraction of the thousands that come through within a few miles of my house. Rare shorebirds, paradoxically, are harder to find here than they were in the desert. But there's no doubt that in terms of total populations, this region is far more important to the birds than Arizona ever could be.

Several people have made good points about the fact that it's possible to create shallow impoundments and flats that are ideal for attracting and viewing migrant shorebirds in an area where no such habitat had existed before. I fully agree. But I also want to point out that the same principles that apply to an artificial sewage pond of a few acres can't be applied to a marsh complex of thousands of acres. I can't speak for the people who manage Ottawa NWR or the state wildlife areas, but my understanding is that they intended to have some good flats available for shorebirds close to the roads, just in an attempt to please the birders, but they were stymied this year by the extreme weather -- record-breaking precipitation in July, followed by sudden drying in August. The people managing these areas have to deal with a lot of challenges, including changing lake levels and lots of invasive nonnative plants, and it appears to me that the managers are doing a good job of providing for wildlife. I wouldn't want to see Ottawa or Magee or Metzger chopped up into a lot of little sewage-pond square sections just to make the birders happy. Sure, it would make the rare shorebirds easier to spot, but it wouldn't mean there were actually more of them there; and it would do away with the habitat for the King Rails, American Bitterns, Least Bitterns, Common Moorhens, Black Terns, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and other birds that really need the marsh.

There are a lot of shorebirds in the refuges and wildlife areas and state parks of the Lake Erie Marshes right now. Most of those birds are out of sight for us most of the time. The best habitat for birds is not always the best habitat for birding, and that's an important distinction to learn. As conservationists we should favor the welfare of the birds over the short-term ease of birding, so that we'll have birds to watch in the future.

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