Stilt Sandpipers are back at Spoonbill Pond

Each spring I can’t wait until mid-April because that means “shorebirds” to me. Most birders seem to really love getting into the woods and looking for migrant songbirds and warblers in particular – and don’t get me wrong, I love that too – but shorebirds is what really gets me going. I got in from Minnesota very late Friday night but couldn’t wait to get to Spoonbill Pond the next morning to start checking for shorebird arrivals. They didn’t disappoint and I had 15 species of shorebirds at the location.

Of course the best shorebird I found yesterday was the region’s first Stilt Sandpiper this year. This is a locally rare species that is almost completely unreported in Nassau County to the north and usually only has scattered reports from St. John’s County to the south (most from Six Mile Landing). In Duval County, Spoonbill Pond is really the only publicly accessible place to even try looking for them, and then it is usually from a distance in poor light. On top of that, they’re usually mixed in with Dowitchers (mostly Long-billed there now) and can be very difficult to detect.

The series of images below are intended to help give you an idea of what you might see and how to pick them out based on some subtle differences. In Figure 1 below, the Stilt Sandpiper is in the foreground and a basic plumaged Dowitcher is in the background. Notice the posture of the Stilt; the body is tipped forward at a sharper angle, while the Dowitcher is more even-keeled horizontally. While the basic shape and contours seem very similar, the Stilt is a little smaller and more slender. The rusty ‘cheek patch’ just behind the eye is a really nice clue too, but depending on the lighting you may not be able to detect that.

Fig.1 – Stilt Sandpiper feeding

In Figure 2 below, you see a Stilt (left) with an alternate plumaged Dowitcher (right). What I see here is the difference in the “tilt” again – the Stilt is really leaning forward at a much sharper angle – and the difference in the barring along the flanks. The Dowitcher is much richer in color and you can thus rule out Stilt Sandpiper for that bird. While this image only has one Dowitcher, in the field you’ll see dozens of them together so if you’re picking through them you know you can discard anything that color as being a Stilt Sandpiper.

Fig.2 – Stilt Sandpiper and Dowitcher

In Figure 3, there is again one of each species – take a moment to guess which is which, and the answer is below.

Fig. 3 – Crossed shorebirds

Hopefully for figure 3 you were able to determine that the Stilt is the bird on the left, facing right – and the Dowitcher is the bird on the right, facing left. The primary difference here is that coloration – the Stilt is heavily barred in the flanks, but lacks the rich orange of the dowitcher.

Fig. 4 – Stilt and Dow

Figure 4 above completes the sequence from Figure 3, so you can now see different field marks confirming the identity. The Stilt is continuing its way right and has a medium length, slightly drooping bill, the rusty “cheek patch” and rusty cap. The Dowitcher has a much heavier and longer bill, uniform orange from chest to tail, and less distinguished “eyebrow”. Unfortunately this image is not as crisp as I’d like but it’s pretty heavily cropped.

Other than the excitement of shorebirds, it has been the best year for migrating Scarlet Tanagers in recent memory; in fact I can’t remember a spring here in which there were as many reports from all over the county, nor in the numbers reported. Seeing two to four of these beauties at one time is a significant treat. Here’s one from Reddie Point Preserve on 18 April:

18 April 2018 - Scarlet Tanager

Next up should be White-rumped Sandpipers – they could be here as early as 5 May, but more likely to arrive in the second and third week of May. Spoonbill Pond and Heritage River Road Wetlands is the best place to be on the lookout for them.