Yes, of course approaching birds closely without flushing them means using careful techniques and camouflage. Moving slowly and indirectly, avoiding eye contact or making loud noises, and wearing green, tan or camo may net some close observations.
“And then there’s my way,” I thought, as portions of a flock of 5,000 long-billed dowitchers waded past my 13-foot orange kayak with me wearing my baby blue life vest, white paddling shirt and bright yellow hat on the Willard Spur this past May. Once I stopped moving toward them and settled to observe, pointing my goggle-eyed binoculars at them, the birds continued to move toward me until they streamed 15 feet off my left orange paddle blade.
This was actually a toned-down approach. Before I visited with the dowitchers, I had found a bunch of purple, lavender and fluorescent green balloons snagged on a clump of reeds, no doubt refugee trash from some birthday celebration. I clipped them to my kayak rigging to dispose of later while I continued my outing. The balloons bobbing over my head gave me second thoughts upon entering the dowitchers’ bay and I shoved them under the deck in the cockpit (don’t ask why I didn’t pop them then) to minimize the color and motion as I moved in.
About the time I realized the flock was less than 20 feet out, one of the balloons popped in the heat building under the deck. The dowitchers looked up, saw that nothing bad had happened and commenced feeding and wading again.
This was not true, however, when a silent peregrine falcon flew high overhead; the birds flushed with a cacophony of chip notes and with a rush of wings that sounded like a stiff wind through fir trees, not to return until long after the predator was gone. I had never wanted less to see a peregrine in my life.
The birds have spent the breeding season along the Arctic coasts of Northwestern Alaska and Eastern Siberia since their May passage through Utah. Another flock of 5,500 or so long-billed dowitchers that I watched on the Willard Spur just last week could easily have been on Siberia’s Arctic coast a few weeks ago … and they didn’t even look tired!
They seethed gently through the surface water, some wading; some foraging; some standing still to preen by scissoring their breast feathers with their long bills; and some tucking one long leg under their belly feathers and bills into their scapulars to rest. Small groups flew between the flock I watched and a second flock of equal size across the spur and within the boundary of Bear River Refuge, narrating their short flights with constant “keet!” chipping notes.
This time, I was watching from dry land after having walked with my spotting scope about two miles out on the north dike of Willard Reservoir. Where stands of reeds give way to glassy surface water in the spur north of the reservoir, thousands of individual dowitchers clustered so thickly that they looked like brown mudflats. But they were brown bird flats, as unwary as in spring, and perfect subjects for studying again.
The long-billed dowitcher is a shorebird with long legs for wading and a long beak for probing for insects, worms and crustaceans. As with many shorebirds, its plumage is variegated browns, grays and whites and often challenges the identification skills of even the most careful birders due to similar-looking birds like Wilson’s snipe and short-billed dowitcher. The species prefers the surface water of freshwater wetlands and is known for its iconic probing method often termed sewing-machine foraging.
Now on their fall migration, flocks are a mixture of birds still in rufous breeding plumage, half-and-half rufous breeding and bland gray winter plumage into which they’re molting, and hatch-year young wearing their first juvenal feathers. Each bird stretches up to 10 inches long, but some of that length is the long, skinny bill and they may seem shorter. They’re plump and the flocks are densely packed. It’s no wonder that the practice of market hunting reduced their numbers in the 19th century before laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act outlawed hunting them.
It’s also possible that any flock so unwary that it can be approached in an orange boat with balloons popping made them easy targets in great numbers. I’m just glad their unwary nature makes them so observable that I could watch last week’s 11,000 close to home on Willard Spur.
Kristin Purdy can be reached at email@example.com.