The Jamaica Bay Shorebird Festival

The Jamaica Bay Shorebird Festival, August 9, 2009
Photo by Wayne Mones

Although our livelihoods are not dependent on the seasons, many among us city dwellers measure our lives by natural events. By the migration of birds, by flights of butterflies, by dragonflies, by the emergence of trout stream insects, and by the arrival, departure, and return of shorebirds. I got hooked on shorebirds in the early 1980s when you could still see 50,000 Red knots gorging on horseshoe crab eggs on the Delaware Bay. I love them because of their mystique as super-long-distance fliers. Because their lives depend on the right timing of migration, mating, fledging, and return migration. And because they are so damned hard to identify -- even after all these years. Peeps are hard to sort out even in breeding plumage. On the return trip you have to work through worn plumage, transitional plumages, and fresh juveniles.

Although only three years old the Shorebird Festival organized by New York City Audubon and the American Littoral Society has become one of the measures of my life. I was especially eager this year because July was, literally, a washout. The wettest July on record had completely washed out our butterfly season, and I couldn’t wait to have something to look at.

The event is held at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge each year and attracts some of the best birders in the region to act as guides and lecturers, including Tom Burke, Kevin Karlson, Lloyd Spitalnik, and Don Riepe. As in past years the day began in the field where we had many fewer birds than in previous years for reasons that nobody can explain. They were mostly Semi-palmated sandpipers, a few Western sandpipers, Semi-palmated plovers, White-rumped sandpipers, Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, and Short-billed dowitchers. The 130 participants divided into four groups all of whom joyfully peppered our guides with questions about the finer points of field identification. We then convened in the auditorium for slide shows and lectures by Lloyd Spitalnik and Kevin Karlson. Kevin and Lloyd went through enough details of structure, shape, size, and plumage to make anyone’s head spin. I have listened to these great teachers a number of times.  I go back for more because a few more points stick in my memory each time. This is birding at its best.

Shorebirds are fun, partly because they are so baffling. Learning them takes many hours in the field, many more with your nose in a book, and lots of embarrassing mis-identifications. Fortunately there is help. Lovers of shorebirds have recently been blessed by the publication of three specialty field guides which flatten the learning curve.
The Shorebird Guide (Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006) is a desert island field guide. It is, for me, the model of what a specialty guide should be.


The core of the book is in the first half which includes copious photographs of birds in all seasons, and plumages. The photos include individual birds in a variety of standing and flight postures. The authors have also included many photos of birds in mixed flocks to point out size and structural differences in similar appearing species and to challenge you to sort them out. Each species account begins with a bullet point summary describing size, structure, behavior, and status, which forms a short-hand “birding by impression” account which is more helpful than many more detailed texts. The second half includes the longer, more detailed species accounts that we are accustomed to seeing in specialty guides. I would love to see the guide split into two volumes, separating the detailed species accounts from the photos, to make it easier to carry the plates in the field.

The second must-have shorebird guide is Dennis Paulson’s Shorebirds of North America, (Princeton University Press, 2005).

The core of Paulson’s guide is the excellent photographs illustrating the birds in most of their plumages,and the excellent text. Paulson takes the more traditional approach of identifying birds primarily by field marks, size and plumage. In comparison, O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson advocate an approach which relies more on shape, size, and behavior – what Kevin Karlson refers to as “birding by impression.” In my experience, really good birders will often tell you that they rely on impression or field marks, but they really use both approaches.

The latest offering is Richard Chandler’s Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia (Princeton University Press, 2009)

Like the two guides mentioned above, Chandler’s book incorporates outstanding photographs of each species in most of their plumages. Like Paulson, his text is quite detailed and scientific which I find useful at home, but less useful in the field than O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson’s bullet point approach. This is not to dismiss this excellent field guide, for this book is invaluable and extremely useful in the field.

These three field guides will make you a better birder. Don’t ask me which one to buy because, if you love shorebirds, you need all three. These guides are the vanguard of a revolution in thinking about field guides. Each takes a different approach. Each is extremely useful. In the 1980s when the first field guides to incorporate photographs rather than illustrations were published, many experienced birders dismissed them because the quality of the photographs was not as useful for field identification as the illustrations used in Peterson, the Golden Guide, and The National Geographic Guide. What these three guides prove is that photographs can be extremely useful if publishers allow field guide authors enough control of the project and enough time to sift through tens of thousands of photos and select the right ones rather than rushing into print to meet a publication schedule.

If you, gentle reader, are reading this in August I hope you are doing so at night or while you are at work for this is the time to be in the field.

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”