When I was little, growing up in the downriver Detroit area, our family used to go often to a place in Ontario, Canada, called Point Pelee. My uncle Joe had a small cottage there on the shore of Lake Erie, where my brother and I would spend every daylight hour on the beach with our cousins, doing what every red-blooded American boy our age did on a beach--light firecrackers in the mouths of the dead perch that washed up there.
There were also plenty of birds, especially gulls and shorebirds. We'd chase them along the shore, trying to impress each other by seeing who could get closest before the birds took to the air. I knew one type of gull: the "Seagull." As for the long-legged birds that scampered out of our reach, I knew the Killdeer. Everything else was just "Sandpiper."
Of course, we knew nothing of the tremendous variety of shorebirds, and the amazing migration stories they each had to tell. And we had no idea that just down the beach from the cottage was one of the Midwest's premier stopover spots for migrating shorebirds.
I was thinking of my cousins, and of those days on Lake Erie, when earlier this week I saw what were maybe the last Dunlins of the season. A small group of 11 birds were flittering like windblown leaves, back and forth from one end of 63rd St Beach to the other. They would land and chase the retreating waves, probing for small crustaceans the waves left behind. Then they'd fly to another spot on the beach and frantically chase the waves there. Chances are these Dunlins had just flown in from northern Manitoba, stopping in the Windy City before continuing on to Florida and other points south. They needed plenty of energy for the next leg of their journey.
Even for me, the Dunlin is a pretty easy shorebird to recognize. In spring, their reddish back and black belly stand out. In autumn, when their plumage is a plain grayish white, their oversized, drooping bill is a dead giveaway.
As I watched the eleven Dunlins, it was like watching the last leaves fall in autumn--ah, it's a long time until spring....
To my friends in Florida: those Dunlins are headed your way. Give them a warm welcome. And when the grandkids romp on the beach, please set down a few rules. Firecrackers in the mouths of dead fish? OK, if you're old enough to light matches. But don't be chasing those poor shorebirds. Instead, learn to ID them!
Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.