December 31th, 2019: A last-minute lifer at Presqu’ile!
Well, I was wrong about my last post being the last of 2019. But I really thought it would be… Especially since I’m looking forward to the Amherst Island Christmas Bird Count on January 3rd and figured I’d be writing about that.
As it happened, I needed to drive out to Toronto on this last day of the year and saw that there had been some relatively consistently reported Purple Sandpipers (thanks, eBird) out at Presqu’ile Provincial Park. I thought I’d be stopping on the way to Toronto, but I was driving in nearly whiteout conditions with unpredictable squalls hitting the highway. So I had to skip it. On the way back, however, I still had a bit of daylight. I decided that even in the wind and rain/hail/snow, I’d drive about 45 minutes out of the way to see if I could find these birds. You know, like anyone would do.
If you haven’t been to Presqu’ile, it’s really worth a trip. It’s fantastic for birds in the spring in particular and it’s about the best place around, assuming you can’t get out to Point Pelee or Rondeau (another few hours drive west along Lake Ontario).
I parked at the park store and started down Owen Point Trail toward the point itself.
It was incredibly windy, but the snow had let up a little, so I only had to contend with a lot of spray off the lake. I took a quick look south from the rocky shoreline, but didn’t turn up much.
A few Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, and Long-tailed Ducks were nice though.
As I rounded the corner to face west, the wind really kicked up. Here’s a video from Owen Point:
Looking north along the coast, I could see the algae mat that many shorebirds like to feed on, and started to think I might actually find the sandpipers.
Then I saw movement. Dark, tubby, vaguely purplish movement… Holy cow. That was them!
I crept closer to find 4(!!!) Purple Sandpiper and one Dunlin feeding together.
Purple Sandpipers are cousins to the Surfbirds we have out west. They behave similarly and have the same medium-billed, kinda chubby, and generally grey appearance. Purple Sandpipers aren’t purple in an obvious way, but there’s definitely a purplish hue to their otherwise grey head and back. I’m afraid this didn’t turn out particularly well in my late-afternoon, overcast photos. But I promise you it’s noticeable in their plumage.
They also have the northernmost winter range of any shorebird and migrate down the east coast of North America (hence, a rarity at Presqu’ile). And the males are good dudes. Unlike many polyandrous shorebirds, Purple Sandpipers are monogamous and form a long-term pair bond and the male is often the one who takes care of the hatchlings. This allows female Purple Sandpipers to build more effective career plans and earn more competitive salaries.
Purple Sandpipers also have a pretty cool defence strategy. They may raise one wing straight up when they perceive a threat. Or they may perform a “Rodent Run” display, in which they catch a predator’s attention by running away from the nest, fluffing their feathers, and making mouse-like noises. This would probably be hilarious if their chicks’ lives didn’t hang in the balance (it might still be pretty fun). Unless you’re up on Baffin Island or Greenland where they nest though, you’re unlikely to see this.
I was able to get within about 15 feet without them showing any stress. I was so lucky to have such amazing views of this bird that had eluded me for years! I spent as long in the cold, wind, and wet as my fingers and optics could handle before saying goodbye to the active little foragers.
I headed back to the car, practically giddy from finding and hanging out with these beautiful rare birds. What a way to end 2019!! =D
Happy New Year, everyone! And thanks for reading!