I made a trip to the St. Marys Fish Hatchery last Wednesday, September 1, a place I have birded myriad times for many years. The hatchery is in western Auglaize County, Ohio, along the eastern shore of massive Grand Lake St. Marys. The hatchery is a magnet for migrant birds, and many a rarity has been seen here over the years. The site’s reputation as a bird magnet goes way back. In 1970, Clarence Clark and James Sipe published a booklet, Birds of the Lake St. Marys Area. It’s a gem, although tough to lay hands on now.
Hatchery staff obviously have fish production as their major goal, but as part of operations they routinely draw down impoundments. When draw-downs coincide with shorebird migration, birding can excel. The staff is birder-friendly, just stay out of the way of hatchery activities.
Several ponds have been recently lowered, including one of the large ones, and shorebirding has been interesting of late and should remain so for a while.
A Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) strikes a pose. This one was foraging out on the open mudflats; normally they are more reclusive and lurk in vegetation. And thus are easily overlooked. Dozens or even triple figures sometimes haunt wet meadows in migration, but remain largely out of view. Snipe come out of their shells on breeding grounds, where they engage in fantastic aerial courtship flights accompanied by a surreal winnowing sound produced by their tail feathers.
A beautiful little Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) in its favored milieu, a rich mucky mudflat. Several of these elfin “killdeerlets” with the single band were present. Like most of the shorebirds – plovers and sandpipers – that appear in Ohio during migration, this species nests FAR to our north, across the upper reaches of the Canadian and Alaskan tundra regions. Like most of our plovers, Semipalmated Plover winters mostly along coastal zones: Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, and coastal zone of much of Central and South America, as well as throughout the Caribbean.
A trio of our other “half-webbed” shorebird, the Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla). Semipalmated refers to the partial webbing between the toes. If you enlarge the Semipalmated Plover shot you can see this webbing. While the scientific epithet pusilla means “tiny”, the Semipalmated Sandpiper is not the smallest of the five species of “peep” sandpipers that pass through Ohio. That honor goes to the Least Sandpiper (C. minutus). The latter was the most frequent of the peeps at the hatchery on this day.
I was especially pleased to encounter two Baird’s Sandpipers (Calidris bairdii). This is one of our larger peeps, although we’re not talking eagle-sized here. A hefty Baird’s stretches the tape to about 7.5 inches in length and weighs little more than an ounce. But those wings! They span a whopping foot and half! You can see how the wingtips project beyond the tail in the photo. This is a bird meant to fly, and fly they do. Baird’s Sandpiper is one of the world’s great long-haul migrants. They breed in the northernmost reaches of the North American tundra. This incredible sandpiper winters along the Andes in Ecuador, all the way south to the southern tip of the world: Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Some of these animals probably fly 9,000 miles – one way! – between breeding and wintering grounds. Rich mudflats where they can rest and refuel along this long journey are vital, but mudflat conservation for shorebirds seems to get little conservation attention in this region.
A quartet of Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) rests on a mat of desiccated Chara algae. This was the most common shorebird on this day – perhaps 150 yellowlegs were present. Only perhaps five of their rank were the much larger Greater Yellowlegs (T. melanoleuca), but they generally are greatly outnumbered by their lesser brethren.
A Lesser Yellowlegs shows off its namesake legs. In the olden days of unregulated market hunting (late 1800’s, primarily), this species along with many other shorebirds was shot in large numbers. The Lesser Yellowlegs recovered well following establishment of wildlife conservation laws, but not all shorebirds did. The Eskimo Curlew, which may be extinct although there are glimmers of hope, is a sad case in point.