Posted July 3, 2020
Written by Mike Perrin
With technological advances and the mass use of citizen science, many modern-day birders are attentive to forums, email listservs, and Facebook groups that inform us of rare birds in our areas (state, county, country, etc.). These alerts are often an inspiration to chase “life birds,” or birds you have not personally seen. Most times, these alerts tell us about birds that have flown out of their species’ usual range, providing many opportunities to chase and see them. BUT, sometimes, these alerts let birders know about mega-rarities, or birds you would never logically expect to see in an area. Mega-rarities are often rare to a large region, like the East or West Coasts, or rare to the American Birding Association (ABA) Area, which includes the continental U.S., Hawaii, and Canada. This past week, the East Coast’s most recent mega-rarity came to town: a Terek Sandpiper in Westerly, Rhode Island.
The Terek Sandpiper is a small, unique-looking wading bird, like a heron or egret, with an upcurved bill, bright orange legs, and grayish body with a white belly. It is a Eurasian bird. The birds in our Wareham backyards migrate between North America and South America, and Eurasian birds like Terek Sandpipers migrate in similar patterns between Europe and Asia. The ABA assigns “codes” to birds based on their frequency in the ABA area, from Code-1: regularly occurring (think breeding birds) to Code-6: cannot be found. The Terek Sandpiper is classified as Code-3: rare, occurring annually but in low numbers or as visitors. These annual records are typically from Alaska. According to eBird.org, a very reliable source for ABA records, there have only been five records of Terek Sandpipers in the lower 48 states and Canada, including individuals seen in British Columbia (1987), California (1988), Massachusetts (1990), Virginia (2008), and now Rhode Island (2020). Many of these individuals were seen on restricted access islands or only seen for a brief moment, so very few ABA birders have seen this bird.
This Terek Sandpiper was found at Napatree Point on the morning of June 28th by a local Rhode Island birder. Over the course of the day, nearly 50 people chased the bird after seeing the alert. The sandpiper continued into the 29th, and another 80+ birders chased and saw the bird. I reluctantly stayed home on the 28th and the 29th, but I vowed that I would go on the 30th. Because this bird has only been seen on the East Coast three times, I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime bird. On the morning of the 30th, I saw a report from first light (seen at 5:30 a.m.), immediately hopped into my car, and headed toward Westerly. For the entirety of the hour and a half drive from New Bedford, I held my breath and kept my fingers crossed, as the bird could leave at any moment before I arrived. I pulled into the 2-hour parking lot, checked the time, and made my way down Napatree Point with a group of roughly 20 other birders.
While in the parking lot, I ran into two birders I knew: a birder I knew through Instagram and a good friend from college whom I have spent countless hours birding with in Vermont. After a quick hello, I joined my friend from Instagram as we “walked” (ran) a mile down the beach toward a group of 40+ birders. As we arrived, the crowd informed us that we had shown up literally one minute after the bird flew from the lagoon, roughly 50 yards away from the group, to the other side of the harbor, roughly 300 yards away. Figures. Luckily, a few birders kept an eye on the bird as it flew to the other side and pointed out the bird to the rest of the crowd after it landed on the far shoreline. As I disappointingly watched a black speck foraging along the wrack line, I was happy I did not miss the bird entirely. With the help of my friend’s high-powered spotting scope (think birding telescope), I was able to see a black speck with an upcurved bill. A rush of adrenaline washed over me, as typical with a successful chase.
Determined to get a closer and more satisfying look, I decided to remain on the beach for the remainder of my allotted parking time. The buzz and crowd continued to grow, and I ran into more friends searching for the sandpiper. I saw a birder couple from the Cape who I had met at other chases, and a nice young man from Maine who I ran into at a chase in Plymouth last summer. Most birders traveled multiple hours to see the bird, so we were all relieved with our less-than-ideal looks at the bird. To avoid getting a parking ticket, I walked back to my car with all my gear and moved parking spots. After a quick snack and an outfit change from pants to shorts, I headed back out to see if the bird would return to the closer foraging area. The walk reminded me that I was doing what I loved to do and reminded me of my privilege as an able-bodied person with access to proper birding equipment.
As I returned to the crowd, I realized the most special part of the day was the birding community. I was able to connect and reconnect with friends I had met in person and over social media, I exchanged stories on the beach with new friends, and there was no competition involved, only cooperation. After my time ran out in my second 2-hour parking spot, I decided that I had spent enough time (roughly 4 hours) waiting for the bird, and it was time to return to the real world. Though many intense birders would be disappointed with the looks that I had, I left feeling accomplished and grateful — accomplished for seeing the bird, and grateful for those who saw it by my side. These are the experiences that keep my passion alive and my binoculars around my neck.
After I left, the Terek Sandpiper returned to the closer viewing area around 2:30 p.m. The lighting provided dull looks, but many birders were able to see the silhouette and the quirky upcurved bill. The bird was seen on the morning of July 1st, but disappeared around 10:00 a.m. and has not been relocated. If you are interested in receiving rare bird alerts and chase some cool birds, follow ABA Rare Bird Alert or Massachusetts Rare Bird Alert on Facebook or go to eBird.org to sign up for alerts. Happy Birding!!
**COVID NOTICE: most, if not all, present birders were wearing masks. There was little scope sharing, which was easily avoided by putting an iPhone up to the eye-piece to avoid eye-to-eye contact.