Birding an Open Meadow


(This 1219th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 3, 2014.)


Upland Sandpiper

Painting by Allan Brooks


Chris Hollister and I spent a pleasant hour recently at the landfill on the west and south sides of Clarence's Tillman Road Wildlife Management Area.


Midsummer is not a particularly interesting time for birding. All the excitement of observing the spring and fall migrations is gone and most of the remaining birds have paired up and are quietly nesting, their lusty courtship singing no longer necessary. But Chris had kindly offered to help me add two uncommon species to my year list and I was delighted to join him.


This was our second visit to this area this year. We spent an evening hour here back in late March watching courtship flights of woodcocks and listening to the contrast between their raspberry-like bzeet calls and their twittering songs as they circled overhead.


On this hike it was early morning when we left the corner of Shisler and Tillman Roads to walk south along the abandoned Shisler Road extension. There had been a heavy dew that morning and this old road is so overgrown that we could not avoid the dripping branches of honeysuckle and other bushes. By the time we emerged on the open fields of the landfill, we were both dripping wet. Fortunately the sun was shining brightly and the water we couldn't shake off soon evaporated.


Before we set out into the open fields Chris pointed out a willow flycatcher ranging among low trees and shrubbery. He could hear the active bird's fitz-brew call, which is the only way you can tell this species from its cousin, the alder flycatcher. The alder's call has three parts instead of two: a buzzy zree-be-oh, the mid note higher in pitch. These two species are so similar that even bird banders cannot tell them apart in the hand, so they still call them by the name they both went by before they were differentiated: Traill's flycatcher. Because I can no longer hear these notes, I just have to accept the identification offered by companions like Chris.


As we made our way out onto the open grassland that runs down all the way to the Thruway, we could see how the swallowwort is taking over the area. An undesirable alien vine brought to Maine from southeastern Europe in about 1900, it has spread westward and is a serious problem for Christmas tree farms. Here the entangled vines form a ground cover displacing our natural grasses. It seeks to trip us as we walk. Even worse, it is making its way into the forest behind us, choking out trees by shading them from the sun and preventing them from carrying on the photosynthesis that nourishes them.


Swallowwort belongs to the milkweed family and happily those more desirable plants were in evidence also. In fact we found a half dozen monarch butterflies feeding on them. These were the first of these increasingly rare insects that I saw this year and all last year I saw only two.


The two species we were seeking were grasshopper sparrow and upland sandpiper. And we soon came upon an upland sandpiper. In the past I have seen these birds perched either on the phone lines that run south along the old road or on the white vents spaced around the landfill to allow gasses to escape. This bird instead rose from the grass and circled around us giving us excellent views. It complaining about our presence with its chippering calls, but it didn't add the loud whistle that occasionally extends these calls into a kind of song.


Over my lifetime this species has been known by four different names. When I was young the species was called either Bartramian or Bartram's sandpiper, those names commemorating the early 19th century naturalist William Bartram. Then it was named the upland plover until systemists more aptly categorized it as a sandpiper and gave it its current name.


Formerly a common field bird, upland sandpipers are increasingly rare and this is one of their few remaining local breeding grounds. For that reason we changed our course so as not to disrupt any possible nest.


Hardly a minute later we were delighted to find our other target bird, a grasshopper sparrow. It came so close I could hear its weak buzzing. Two other more common grassland species were calling nearby: savannah sparrow and field sparrow.-- Gerry Rising