You would never know it by the weather, but the shortening day length tells shorebirds that winter is on its way. Birds such as the Spotted Sandpiper, which may have spent the summer as far away as Canada, are now returning to spend the winter in Texas or further south in Central and South America.
Since Austin is about 200 miles from the coast, most people don’t think shorebirds occur here. Where is the shore after all? Some shorebirds are adapted to using lake shores, river banks and drying up stock ponds as migratory stopover sites. Still others are more likely to show up on grasslands and sod farms in migration. The best place in town to see shorebirds is Hornsby Bend, home of Austin’s wastewater sludge treatment plant. The drying beds where Dillo Dirt is being composted are go-to spots if it rains. Pond 1 west, close to the drying beds, also has good stopover mudflat habitat. Although it is not a particularly aesthetically-pleasing experience, the abundance and diversity of shorebirds on a good August day will make up for the Hornsby odor and relentless sun. The eBird database maintained by Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows you might find sixteen or more fairly common shorebird species there in August. A spotting scope and/or binoculars are a must in order to see the birds well.
Fun shorebird fact: Shorebirds are precocial which means that their young are capable of leaving the nest almost immediately after hatching. They are born with downy feathers unlike helpless and unfeathered songbird nestlings. At first the chicks stay close to their parents for safety and protection from the elements.
Just Call Them Peeps
Shorebird identification presents many challenges, since so many of the species look pretty similar. Because of that most people just resort to calling the small ones “peeps.” In order not to be overwhelmed, learn some of the most distinctive shorebirds first. Two that fit that bill are the Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer.
In August when Spotted Sandpipers are showing up in good numbers, the 7.5 inch bird may or may not have spots since it is molting out of breeding plumage. Look for the almost comical bobbing motion of its tail end, while it walks, as a behavioral identification clincher. No one knows why it does this. When startled, the Spotted Sandpiper flies with a fluttery stiff-winged flight followed by a glide, and it usually voices alarm with a peet-weet call. You can find them at Hornsby or along Lady Bird Lake or area creeks where they often are catching insects at the water’s edge. According to All About Birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, Spotted Sandpipers have the widest breeding range of any North American sandpiper. Although you might be able to find a summering bird in the northern half of the state, there are very few breeding records for Texas.
In mid-July last year there were close to 175 Killdeer, a shorebird bigger than the Spotted Sandpiper, gathered at Hornsby on the mudflat that is Pond 1 west. Possibly it was a staging area for birds that are going to Mexico and further down into Central and northern South America for the winter. In Austin we have Killdeer year round, where they breed in unusual places such as parking lots, baseball fields, and flat gravel-covered roofs, as well as lawns and golf courses.
They don’t build a nest, instead just creating a shallow depression called a scrape where they lay their eggs. Killdeer are quite vociferous, calling their name repeatedly when alarmed, “kill-dee, kill-dee.” You might be familiar with Killdeer as the bird that does a broken-wing display to lure you away from a newly hatched chick which resembles a ping pong ball with legs. Bottom line: You should be able to find a Killdeer in many places around Austin during August.
Swifts On the Move
In additions to shorebirds many other birds are heading south during August. Chimney Swifts congregate in large migratory roosts before going to South America. One way to learn more about these aerial acrobats is to visit Swift Fest in Jonestown on August 19 which celebrates Jonestown’s roost located in an old cistern. You will be treated to a tornado of swirling birds as they settle in for the night. Or maybe your neighborhood school has an abandoned incinerator that hosts these long-distance flyers. Check and see.