Reveling in the Milford Point Peep Show
One late summer day, I was standing on the outer plover/tern bar at Milford Point, soaking up my fair measure of the experience and spectacle that is the fall shorebird migration. I was surrounded by thousands of migrating shorebirds, mostly peeps, and I was struck with a minor revelation and later a profound sense of understanding which gradually built up over the course of several weeks. The revelation came from the following real life story and happened in an instant. The understanding crept in to my consciousness gradually over a period of time., Both derived from a prolonged period of time spent watching and photographing shorebirds.
This is a view from a birders perspective of a large group of Peeps.
Peeps are often in motion, taking flight in alarm or returning to roost after a dread.
Let me set the scene for the first minor revelation- A small, non affiliated group of four or five birders were on the outer sand bar of Milford Point on a fine late summer day on a rising tide scoping a large, reasonably approachable, group of small shorebirds known collectively as “Peeps.” We were on the birds for a while picking out species, when we were joined by several new recruits from inland who sauntered up with scopes and bins. One of the newcomers casually asked, “What are you seeing?” and someone from the earlier group dutifully responded, “Oh there are tons of Semipalmated Sandpipers, a few Semipalmated Plovers, a handful of Least Sandpipers, some Sanderlings and oh yeah there are a couple of Westerns in there too. “Westerns,” one of the newcomers quickly retorted in slightly higher tone of voice, “where are they, that would be a lifer…”
“Oh yeah, there’s a Western or two here, one was right over there…”
So now the whole gang of assorted birders had a mission, we started searching the seething mass of peeps with long glass and bins to re-find the previously spotted Western Sandpiper. The Western had been conclusively seen by most of the earlier birders, but guess what, now we can’t find one now. The pressure is on, five, then ten minutes go by and we are sweating, where the devil did “it” go? Finally s a horsey whisper, “I’ve got one, let me get a scope on it. Dang, I lost it, but it was just there.” A bit later, a quiet, authoritative voice said “I’ve got it” and up steps the woman who needs the Western for a lifer. The birder behind the scope says something like “it’s the third bird from the left of the rock but it’s bill is tucked and it has hint of red on it’s back, just keep watching until you see it’s head come up and you will see the longer bill.” She takes over the scope and after a dramatic interlude, says, “Got it” and, gets to tick a lifer.
Many birders are like that both giving and receiving the gift of bird. I was humbled a bit by how difficult it is to sort through a flock of hundreds of peeps to find the one that was just a bit different on demand and under pressure. Sure I have seen all the common Peeps many times, but each time takes an effort. We put the effort in for a fellow birder and pass along the gift. This wasn’t even a difficult bird, once you know what to look for, and we knew it was there, but it was difficult to find and see it nonetheless.
This incident really happened last year and got me thinking about shorebird identification and peeps in particular. To set the record straight, I’m not an ornithologist, nor am I from England. I put together this minor photo essay on Peeps more as testament about observation and patience. This photo essay is not intended to be a guide to shorebird identification; I will leave that to the experts. I am a bird photographer and I really do enjoy viewing birds and have spent long periods of time spent behind the lens and in front of birds, which has helped my observation skills in ways I never imagined.
Peeps roosting with bills tucked.
The gist of the revelation is that knowledge of peeps does not happen overnight, and they really are a difficult group to master. Much of the wisdom on such groups of birds comes from encounters like this, time spent looking at birds and people sharing their experience with the goal of helping others with similar interests.
Early in my birding experience I was practically parasitic and certainly useless as a bird identifier. I could see the birds but did not know what they were but knew that birds turned me on. I would hang around better birders and gradually picked up lifers and occasional fragments of bird id knowledge. Being an Easterner I did much of my early birding on the East Coast. Somehow by a process that only can be described as trial and error birding, I absorbed the hoary wisdom of more experienced birders as they related to the class of shorebirds called Peeps. The distilled wisdom from those early days was that there were essentially five species of small shorebirds found along the East coast and that they were collectively were referred to as “peeps.” The five Peep species were Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper and Baird’s Sandpiper.
That “hoary wisdom” settled in my mind into something like this. In the old days, but long after shooting stopped as it was now frowned on, one had to learn birds by observing field marks. I learned that to sort peeps out was easy but could be somewhat tricky. There were elements of mystery to the whole id thing, but it kind of went like this.
First of all you basically had to assume that most of the peeps you would ever see (In East in the Fall) were the most common species, which was the Semipalmated Sandpipers. Once you saw and came to know the SemiP, you only had to find birds that were not like the SemiP and they would be one the other four species of Peeps. 1 down and 4 to go.
Now one of the other four, the Least Sandpiper, was real easy because it had yellow legs. So all you had to do was find the small one with yellow legs and bingo you has a Least, which left really three species to worry about. 2 down and 3 to go.
Next, if you found a bird that looked like a SemiP but wasn’t because it had a slightly longer, and slight downward curving bill and maybe some red on it’s back, it might be Western and you would certainly know it when you saw it, but watch out as there was some bill size overlap with the SemiP. Now they were not common, but eventually you would certainly see one as they always turned up in the East in the fall. Just keep looking at all the Semi’s till you find one, it’s easy. 3 down, 2 to go.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the first three peeps all had wings that did not extend beyond their tales. The next two were also easy because their wings did extend beyond their tales, so look for this. The downside is that they are harder to find because they are less common.
So actually the forth species was easy too, sort of. For the White-rumped Sandpiper, all you had to do was scan all the Peeps, find one with the wings longer than the tail and watch it till it till it flies and then look for the white rump. When you saw the white rump it would confirm the id. I soon observed that all peep had some white in their tail area when they flew but it was different for the White-rump. I never learned about the reddish lower mandible till years later, the Peterson guide of the late ’70’s did not show this field mark. By the way it is hard to see the white rump when the bird is not flying. 4 down, 1 to go.
Now any peep that was not one of the four previous species could be the fifth species, the Baird’s Sandpiper and you could look at it’s tail, the wings would be longer and extend past the tail, and it would not have a white rump when it flew. Also it was not always found in the intertidal zone. And it might appear to be more slender than the others. Piece of cake, 5 Peeps down and none to go.
The only problem with this identification matrix was that there could also be other Peep type species in these flocks, but they were real rarities, so all you had to do was look carefully at all the Peep and find the ones that were not one of the five above. When all else fails consider the odds. The chances for a rare peep were almost zero anyway, so don’t get your hopes up and don’t sweat the ones you are not certain of; the odds are with for SemiP and against any rare vagrant. For those larger than Peep sized shorebirds mixed in Peep flocks, it was assumed that the slightly larger than peep sized Dunlin and Sanderling were so obvious that they would never be confused with a real peep even though they are generally found with them. Are you with me?
Of Peeps and non Peeps- Here are a couple of non-peeps that often hang out with peeps.
A Dunlin, preening, at roost with Peep.
A Sanderling, preening, at roost with Peep.
Another way of viewing Peep is to compare one bird to another. Here are some examples.
The Sanderling on the left is larger than the Western on the right.
The Western on the left is 1” shorter than the White-rumped on the right.
The White-rump in front is a bit larger than the Sanderling behind.
Thank the gods that things have improved since those early days when I acquired my sketchy understanding of Peeps.
There have been many improvements to modern shorebird identification. Check out “The Shorebird Guide” by O’Brien, Crossley and Karlson, The Crossely ID Guide by Richard Crossely, and the Stokes Field Guide to Birds Eastern Region by Donald and Lillian Stokes to name a few of the best and most recent. But even with vastly improved optics and better field guides these id’s can be very frustrating to a new birder. Mr. Peterson warned us about the confusing fall warblers, but he never mentioned the confusing fall shorebirds.
Besides the peeps, you’ve got other trouble some Shorebirds. The yellowlegs for example to sort out, the big one and the little one, fine if they are side by side, but what if they are by themselves? You’ve got the Black-bellied and Golden Plovers to sort out, oh it’s easy just look for the black arm pit when in flight then you know it’s Black bellied , but what if it is just standing there? Don’t even get me started on the Dowitchers, one with a long bill and one with a shorter long bill. And tell me again, why isn’t a Sanderling or a Dunlin a peep? Was it because the Sanderling does not have a hind toe? Was the Dunlin expelled from peeps when it’s name changed from Red-Backed Sandpiper to Dunlin? There are other peep sandpipers with red on their backs, I know, I’ve seen them. Now there’s Eastern and Western Willets, when I started there was only one.
The profound sense understanding was a gradual awakening and took place over the course of weeks of repeated visits to the Peeping grounds.
When one stands around on the plover bars of Milford Point, after the Least tern and Piping Plover breeding season, dripping with scopes on tripods, earnest bins and camera gear it happens that others looking for birds come along and they will stop and may ask you what are you seeing or if you have seen a thus and so. It happens, I’ve done it too. When I don’t get annoyed because some clueless neophyte has just flushed all the birds on the bar that I just spent two hours carefully approaching, I will engage in pleasant banter and tell them what I’ve seen and sometimes with some ironic joy what they just missed when they spooked the flock with an awkward approach.
The encounter with the woman who needed the Western reminded me just how difficult peeps could be and they certainly can’t always be produced on demand. One needs a fair bit of patience and persistence to build the necessary knowledge and time in the field to truly see them The nurturing of a group who understands the need to help someone make their first in a lifetime encounter with a new species is helpful too.
After the revelation came the understanding. It came when I released that the many hours of shorebird observation along with the occasional informal Master’s class from the likes of Julian Hough for bird id’s and/or Paul Fusco for photography had allowed me to capture photos of all five of the common Eastern peeps. I have learned how to observe peeps and get them to trust me, and I began to notice patterns and behaviors I had missed when I was just ticking species. It showed me that my knowledge of the birds could keep growing and I finally realized that my early hoary wisdom was not wrong but was only part of the story. There is much complexity to Peep watching and shorebirds in general, and days, weeks and seasons are needed to parse the subtle differences and become familiar enough to welcome old friends and not curse the chaos. It takes time and patience to watch and identify the small shorebirds.
It takes time and patience to get the photos. You cannot rush a photo of Baird’s; it takes time and a bit of luck. The time spent does not guarantee a photo, but the photo will not come with out spending the time.
The photos that follow provide an example from last year; there are six species of shorebirds, with some common Peeps and non-Peeps at roost just past high tide. When you come careful across such a situation, you can with a good scope or bins, check out each individual and with time and patience you can id each and every bird in the flock.
Here is a small mixed flock of shorebirds in the foreground with some distant gulls at rest on the sand bar at Milford Point. There are at least six species of shorebirds in the photo. Ruddy Turnstone, Short-billed Dowitchers, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers and Western Sandpipers.
6 species of shorebirds
Moving closer to the Peeps I can see body patterns, but the bills are tucked on the interesting two birds in the center and I’d like to see the bills to confirm my tentative id’s.
3 species of Peep.
After watching for a bit, one of the center birds, shows it’s bill and the id is confirmed as Least. The interesting bird behind the Least keeps it’s bill tucked for now.
After some more time passes, patience is finally rewarded, the bill is out and a Western is confirmed. All is well with the world.
At any given time shorebirds in flocks are difficult to observe and sort out no matter who you are. For me, I have found that the more time one spends observing these birds, the more comfortable one becomes with them and the knowledge gained will go far beyond mere confident identification.