One Single, Solitary Birthday Gift

What better gift than an encounter with a new bird?  

Earlier this fall, I spent my birthday exploring the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge complex, which includes nearby Merced National Wildlife Refuge, a popular spot for birders and wildlife photographers nestled in a highly agricultural region of California's Great Central Valley.  The protected wetland habitat hosts tens of thousands of overwintering Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, geese of several species (most prominent are flurries of Snow Geese) and literally millions of ducks and shorebirds.  

But on this particular day, one small bird stood out from the crowd: a single, Solitary Sandpiper, foraging quietly along the edge of the wetland.

Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria) are the smallest members of the genus that includes Willets and yellowlegs.  Rare in our area, these medium-distance migrants turn up occasionally during fall migration, on their way from arctic breeding grounds to overwintering grounds in Central and South America. 

Solitary Sandpipers breed in bogs and spruce forest edges across Canada and Alaska, nesting in abandoned songbird nests well off the ground.  During migration, they are typically found foraging for invertebrates and small vertebrates along the edges of wooded marshes, swamps, ponds, and streams.

It's been a great fall for me in terms of interesting shorebirds, from the Pectoral Sandpiper I discovered at a nearby water treatment pond, to a beautiful Pacific Golden-plover over in Monterey county.  

That is the great reward of birding: whether the thrill of finding a new bird, or sharing a special encounter with a familiar one, each day in the field is full of precious little gifts.


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