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Sandpipers On the Move

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August 27, 2011 by Joseph C. Neal

Deep booms of far away thunder recalls historical accounts of the furious cannonade proceeding Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. In the wee dark of last Wednesday, hundreds of metaphorical Confederate cannon fired away, not at Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, but on drought and heat smothering northwest Arkansas. The storm was coming!

I was out birding on an open former prairie, now pasture, as the fury gathered in the northwest, regiments of whipped-up and boiling gray-purple spreading inexorably across a battlefield of morning sky. Out of the car, scanning the fields with my binoculars, I heard one, then two, and finally 5-7 Upland Sandpipers streaming low and headed south ahead of the storm.

If you use Google Earth, type Vaughn AR (or 72712) into the “Fly To” search field. This gets you to the crossroads of highways 279 and 12 in downtown Vaughn. Benton County fair grounds are here, less than a mile from where Uplands were flying. They have found it, and didn’t even use Google Earth!

Just as the storm assault commenced, I’d located a flock of 10 Uplands on the ground in a flat grassy field reserved during the fair for stock trucks. Thunder boomed and sandpipers called PER WITA WIT! I sat in my car with my waterproof spotting scope and watched.

If these Uplands nested in North Dakota and are headed for Argentina, they’ve covered a minimum of 1000 miles. The total migration way exceeds 5000, even if it is a straight line, which of course it isn’t. They’ve stopped in what we term the United States of America, near beginning of their southward journey. They waited out the storm in the bare and seemingly miserable shelter of grass in a former prairie converted to a park for cattle trucks.

From my car, and through a 30 power spotting scope eyepiece, I could see how rain breaking our drought formed beads on an adult Upland’s sleek, brownish, tan-edged feathers. Beads gathered and slow rolled toward the tail, diamonds of great value on millions of years of feather evolution. This reminded me of Joseph’s fabled coat of many colors. Even with all these many tones of brown, white, black, even with streaks and chevrons, even animated by a deep pool of an eye, peering from between two green blades of welcoming grass — it blends.
But a juvenile, after the storm blast, reminded me of a wet hen. Its plainer, camo browns looked, well, and I mean no disrespect, like a wet dishrag. It was just soaked, its sides and tail ragged and disheveled. I’ve been there myself, soaked to the bones.

Morning thunder slowly retreats, yielding to prevailing sun. An adult shakes off diamonds and glides off in pursuit of beetles, moths and grasshoppers! The juvenile spends a longer time drying, shaking, preening back to a condition suitable and serviceable for an up-and-coming sandpiper. Sun out, preening done, it too glides off into welcoming grass.

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