In Eastern Iowa, August marks the beginning of the fall season and the continuation of fall migration.
Fall migration doesn’t have the exciting climax that spring does. Additionally, many birds are losing their colorful breeding plumage.
Groups of related species come through over a period of a few months. While some shorebird species already have started to move south in July, their diversity as a group will peak in August. Migrant warblers and sparrows will be weeks away from their peak migrational diversity.
Seeing shorebirds in early fall depends mostly on the availability of habitat. Reservoirs can be great places to find shorebird habitat, especially when water levels are low. Shorebirds can be seen along the shallow margins of reservoirs, however, the best places usually occur in an area most distal to the dam. In the upstream quarter to third of reservoirs is the interface where the source, in our case a river, slows down to the point where it no longer has enough energy to move sand. This results in an area typified by shallow flats of sand and mud. This is ideal shorebird habitat in Iowa.
High amounts of rain in June most likely will make fall shorebirding around reservoirs lackluster. Water levels will be too high. No habitat means no shorebirds.
So where else is there to look?
Sheet water on flooded agricultural fields provides a nice analog to the muddy and sandy flats at the headwaters of a reservoir. However, spring is typically a better time to check fields, when crops are either not planted yet or seedlings. Luckily, not all shorebirds are adapted to exclusively wet habitats. The “grasspipers,” as some have jokingly coined them, are the shorebirds that do fine making a living in short, grass areas.
Sod farms make an ideal place for the grassland-adapted shorebirds.
There are two specialty species to look for in our area — the Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Upland Sandpiper, once more abundant in the Great Plains, is fairly scarce in Iowa because of continued habitat loss. It is closely related to curlews, which are a group of larger shorebirds with long, curved bills. Upland Sandpipers have a short, thin bill with a dark tip. About as long as a pigeon, they are very slender and tall with a long neck and tail. They are a mottled brown above with spotting on the sides and neck. Their flight song has unmistakable bubbly and ascending quality.
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Buff-breasted Sandpiper is similar to the Upland in some respects, but is smaller and dove-like. It has a mottled brown back like the Upland, but has streaking along the top of its head along with an overall buffy cast to the face, neck and breast. About as long as a meadowlark, it will rock its head quickly back and forth while feeding, seeming to always be on the move.
Be careful not to confuse distant Buff-breasted Sandpipers with meadowlarks.
While sod farms provide these birds an ideal place to forage for food, either species does not breed at these locations. Many speculate they are staging, which in the world of birds means they temporarily gather in numbers, building up energy reserves for their next big flight south.
Both Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper winter in southern South America.
In Iowa, birds that forage on the ground or in shallow water are usually at a much lower level in comparison to the human observer.
Lowering the camera to the level of the subject therefore attains the best profile shot. Sitting or kneeling, lying on the stomach, etc., allows a photographer to get down to the eye level of the bird. If lying, the elbows can provide a makeshift tripod. Some tripods can adjust to hover a camera inches off the ground.
I often use a monopod, adjusted at its lowest level, so I can sit down while shooting shorebirds. A single shot mode with autofocus is often preferred. Many times it is helpful to spend a few minutes observing shorebirds, learning to predict their behavior or how they are feeding and moving through an area, before getting into shooting position.
OTHER BIRDS TO LOOK FOR IN AUGUST
- If habitat persists, look for up to 30-plus species of shorebirds over the month of August. Sand Point at Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area is one of the best places in Eastern Iowa for shorebirding.
- Sedge Wren in grasslands and prairies.
- Field, Lark, Vesper, Swamp and Song Sparrows still should be around.
- Dickcissel and Bobolink in grasslands.
- Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart and Yellow Warbler.
- American White Pelican will begin staging at Hawkeye WMA along with Great Egrets.
AUGUST BIRDING CALENDAR
- Aug. 1, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the CEC.
- Aug. 15, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the CEC.
- Aug. 19, 8-11:30 a.m. — Hawkeye Wildlife Management for shorebirds and other early fall migrants. Meet leader Chris Caster at the parking lot on Swan Lake Road, across from Swan Lake. We will carpool our way around the area with moderate hiking at some viewing areas. Dress for wet and muddy trails and bring a spotting scope if you have one.
- Aug. 19, noon — Club Potluck Picnic at Kent Park’s Red Haw Shelter. Come after the morning field trip or just come for the picnic and social fun. Bring a dish to share and your own drink and table service. The shelter is handicapped-accessible and has nearby restrooms.
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l Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Birdwatching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. He resides with his wife and son in Cedar Rapids. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.