Sunday, September 23, 2012

June 15 - Buff-breasted Sandpipers

Camp in the morning

Yesterday was the best of days. Alfredo and I went south down to the 7s, the most distant part of the study area, and my third day in a row down there. Another 10+ mile today, today was my personal record with 13 miles total. The weather was literally perfect, topping out at an astonishing 55°F, with winds from 0-5mph.
I ended up spending most of the day walking around in just a t-shirt, my wind pants rolled up to the height of shorts, and my waders – quite the stylin’ outfit if I say so myself. We had a great day, finding lots of nests and having a great time, and even sweating prodigiously.
Despite 10 hours of walking around doing “work”, I went out after dinner and data entry, this time with Brad, for photographic purposes. With the 24 hour daylight that you get where we were, from about 10pm until 4-5am you have a period when the light is the nice warm light that you get just near sunset when you actually have a sunset. This soft all-enveloping light is beyond perfect for photography, making pretty much any photo look more alive and overall more pleasing to the eye. Our target was the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a mid-sized shorebird reminiscent of a dove, with a cute little rounded head and chicken-like gait.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Besides generally being awesome, these shorebirds have a wonderful and mesmerizing display: the males will find a display area, sometimes in a small group, and put on a unique show for the females. They begin the performance by trying to attract some attention with their bright white underwings – repeatedly raising and lowering one or both of their wings, flashing their glorious armpits at the world.
Upperwing when he is signaling in the other direction

Underwing, the full semaphore flash

Sometimes they strut their stuff while flashing at the same time

Once they have garnered the attention of one or more ladies, they kick it up a notch. The next level of the display begins with fluttering hops a couple feet into the air, flailing about and doing little half turns before alighting once more near the female. The crowning moment of the show however comes when the male pulls out his final trick, throwing everything he has got at this moment.

The start of the ultimate display

He gets literally right in the face of the female, throws his wings up to create almost a half-dome in front of him, puffs his chest out, tilts his head all the way back, and then makes ticking noises while shaking his wings like maracas. This spectacle lasts for up to 5-8 seconds, in what I saw at least.

Wings thrown up, standing upright, beak slightly parted, ticking and shaking away

Head-on view of the end of the grand finale

Sometimes multiple males will do this same display at once to the same female, jostling for position, wingtip to wingtip, shuffling back and forth at the same time they’re maintaining the ongoing display. I spent almost 5 hours watching these guys display, at least 14 individuals and five males. If you were laying down they would come within mere feet of you, at multiple points throughout the night there were three birds less then 12 feet away – simple amazing. I took about 400 photos this one night, I could post many more than these!

Two males, on the right, displaying to the unamused female on the left

This male and female are two of the birds in the picture just above this with three individuals in it

It was tough to finally sleep after this unforgettable experience; on a night like this that you wish would never end.

Yours truly photographing one of the Buff-breasteds. Photo credit to Brad Winn.

Brad walking back to camp with the Brooks Range in the background - so clear at 3am that they don't look 30+ miles away!

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