May 9: Sunrise Sightings

Observations by Aaron Lang:

I made it to the spit this morning just before 6 AM, perfect timing to catch the end of a whopping 22.1 ft high tide that peaked at 4:12 AM. Ordinarily, Mud Bay at the Saturday morning high tide during the festival would be filled with hundreds of birders and often thousands of shorebirds. This morning there were thousands of shorebirds, roughly 2000 or so “peeps” in Mud Bay, however, there was just one lone birder. Me.

The usual suspects were in attendance–Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Least Sandpipers.

Least Sandpiper

I was excited to find my first Semipalmated Sandpiper of the spring. This small shorebird is at first glance similar to the ubiquitous Western Sandpiper. Upon closer inspection, however, it is a completely different creature.

In the spring, Western Sandpipers are brightly colored shorebirds flaunting rusty caps, auriculars, and scapulars. Bold, black chevrons adorn their breasts and dribble down their flanks. They’re fairly long-legged “peeps” with medium long bills that slightly droop at the tip.

Western Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpipers are much more understated and are often easiest identified by what they aren’t. They lack the flashy rusty patches and are overall a more uniform grayish-brown.

Their breast have neat grayish dashes that are contained in a tidy bib rather than black chevrons that carry on down the flanks as in a Western Sandpiper. And their bills are short and stout with no appreciable droop to the tip.

In spring migration, most Semipalmated Sandpipers take an interior flyway route north to their breeding grounds and they are uncommon migrants along the coast. Often in birding, rarity adds more flash to a bird than gaudy feathers ever could.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

After enjoying the subtle beauty of the Semipalmated Sandpiper, I moved on down to Green Timbers, my favorite spot on the Homer Spit for shorebirds. I like it here because you can walk out to the beach, leaving the road behind, and along the way pass over several micro-habitats that are often teeming with shorebirds, waterfowl, pipits, and longspurs in the spring.

I met five birders from Anchorage at Green Timbers at 7 AM and this is precisely what we enjoyed–a lovely walk along the coast with puddles and trickles full of shorebirds.

There were two more Semipalmated Sandpipers here, with about 100 Western Sandpipers and a handful of Least Sandpipers. A Whimbrel and a Pectoral Sandpiper made a pass overhead as two beautiful Pacific Golden-Plovers, looking great after their non-stop trans-Pacific flight, searched for food on the grassy interior of Green Timbers.

One of my goals for the morning was to spend enough time at Green Timbers enjoying shorebirds to have a chance for Aleutian Terns to fly over head. Aleutian Terns are regular in Kachemak Bay, although their breeding numbers have declined in recent years and they have not been confirmed to breed locally in at least the last four years.

Fortunately for birders, they do continue to show up in the spring each year in Kachemak Bay. Most years they arrive around the 10th of May, with the first sightings frequently coming on the weekend of the Shorebird Festival. In my experience, most of those first sightings are of birds that are seen flying over Green Timbers and Louie’s Lagoon on their way to Mud Bay, a favorite feeding area for the terns.

Aleutian Tern

And almost like clockwork, this morning the Aleutian Terns made an appearance. Five Aleutians flew high over head, giving themselves away with their jolly, chirpy songs, much different from the raspy, harsh calls of an Arctic Tern.

The morning was complete: sunrise alone with the shorebirds, a few moments with a cryptic shorebird attempting to blend in, and the sharing of the return of the Aleutian Terns with friends. All this before 8:30 AM.

Aaron Lang is the owner and Guide for Wilderness Birding Adventures, leading trips in Alaska’s Wilderness and around the world. A favorite local Festival guide, you may have met Aaron on a “Hot Spots Tour” during a previous Festival. Learn more about Aaron and others who have helped keep the Festival’s spark alive for 28 years by meeting the Shorebird Superstars!