George Matz looks for birds during a shorebird monitoring session last Friday at Lighthouse Village near the Mariner Park Slough. A group of birders identifies species and counts numbers every five days in late April and May during the shorebird migration.

Stars of the shorebird fest

Spring has come, and with it a possible 40 species of shorebirds that have arrived in Homer during their annual migration. While the shorebirds can be seen whirling in great flocks over Mud Bay or feeding alone at nearby sloughs, for the novice birder, identifying them can be tricky. They aren’t the most colorful of birds, and most have subtle variations of tan, white and brown, which can make them hard to distinguish from each other, particularly against the beach or sky.

Shorebirds travel from Africa, Australia and even all the way from Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America, to get here. Avid birders visit from across the country to see these beautiful birds during Homer’s Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, an annual event to celebrate the great migration many of these species make. The festival starts today and runs through Sunday afternoon.

For some bird enthusiasts, including Martin Renner and George Matz, it’s this challenge the shorebirds present that makes the hunt for a glimpse worthwhile. Ten dozen species have proven to be crowd favorites, although every birder has his or her own popular birds. (See box, this page.)

Renner has spent a large portion of his career watching birds of all kinds. He observed penguins in New Zealand, and earned his doctoral degree from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, while studying least auklets in the Aleutian Islands. Matz has worked with the Anchorage Audubon Society, teaches a course on birding at Kenai Peninsula College and organizes the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Monitoring Project. It’s clear that both take a special joy from the shorebirds and their identification.

“These shorebirds are ambassadors,” says Matz. “Some migrate from South America to North America and back. They don’t go everywhere, they only go to special places, and Homer is one of those special places.”

Renner also takes joy from spotting these birds. “What I like about shorebird identification is that there are some easy parts that everyone can get a foot in, but it has something for every level,” he says.

Full of suggestions for beginning shorebird enthusiasts, both Renner and Matz emphasize the importance of shape when identifying shorebirds. Shorebirds have several general shapes that, once mastered, can help you narrow down which kind of shorebird you are looking at, and eventually pinpoint the species.

“Things to look for include bill shape and the size relative to the size of the rest of the bird, and the relative length of the legs,” says Renner.

Although plumage can vary among the same species of shorebirds, it’s also an important factor to look at when identifying.

Another suggestion Renner emphasizes is to look for certain species of birds based on their favorite kind of habitat.

“The red-necked phalarope is one you’ll likely see on the water, swimming like a little cork,” says Renner.

Many birds prefer one type of habitat over the other, whether it’s the tidal mudflats, rocky areas, the beach or even the open water.

“Each bird is adapted to very specific parts of the beach based on where they’ve evolved to get food. There is this whole variety between the different species that is fascinating,” says Matz.

For the Homer area, Renner and Matz both conclude that the most influential shorebird seen during the Shorebird Festival is the Western sandpiper.

“The keystone species is the Western sandpiper because they’re here in such numbers. They’re fairly numerous and spread out across the whole Pacific coast, so they are a good indicator of the health of the intertidal zone,” says Matz.

The Western sandpiper is also one of the most numerous and visible shorebirds seen during the festival. The bright white belly, reddish wings and patches behind its eyes and top of the head make the Western sandpiper an easy spy as you scan the beach with binoculars.

Matz and Renner suggest grouping birds into similar body shapes and then start separating the easy birds out from the harder ones. Identify the Western sandpiper, and it’s easy to separate it out from other birds mixed in with the flock. A shorebird about the same size, but with a black belly, is the dunlin. Stumped? At shorebird viewing stations during the festival, experts wearing vests will be on hand to help with identifications.

“Look for the Western sandpiper,” says Renner, “Once you know that one, a lot of things about shorebirds just kind of fall into place.”

Less common, but holding the imagination of birders throughout the Homer area is the spoon-billed sandpiper.

“They’re extraordinary,” says Renner, recounting them as one of his favorite species. “They only breed in a very small area in the east of Siberia, winter in Southeast Asia, and are exceedingly rare with populations declining rapidly.”

Renner attributes most of this population decrease to habitat destruction along their migration route in Asia, as well as hunting in their winter habitat of Siberia. Although very rarely, if ever, seen in Homer, it’s always possible for birders to get a glimpse of this highly sought-after bird.

For advanced birders like Matz and Renner to birders a little wet behind the wings, identifying shorebirds is a special opportunity that comes to Homer for just a few weeks each year.

If you would like more information about the shorebird festival, please visit the Shorebird Festival website at kachemakshorebird.org.

Aryn Young is a freelance writer for the Homer News.