Saturday, February 11, 2012

For the Love of Lifers

Valentine’s Day is approaching along with its expectations that we support the corporate juggernaut by buying expensive, intrinsically worthless objects to supposedly prove our love for that special someone. That’s not my cup of tea, so I’m going to talk about birds.

For most of the fall and early winter there had been reports of Purple Sandpipers (Calidris maritima) hanging around a rocky break-wall on the Lake Michigan shore. It was in Pere Marquette Park in the city of Muskegon, Michigan to be precise. That’s not a hard spot to get to, but my wife and I were living lives of unprecedented upheaval at that time. Jobs and homes were being juggled like flaming chainsaws and birds weren’t on the agenda, even potential lifers like these.

Juncos were about as exciting as it got.

Yes, that’s correct, we’ve done a good bit of birding, but had failed to cross paths with Purple Sandpipers. Our Atlantic coast trips were either at the wrong time of year or before our more avid birding days. On the Great Lakes, we get Purples, but they aren’t that common.  

Purple Sandpipers are pretty awesome shorebirds. While you typically look for your sandpipers in places like tidal mudflats, flooded farm fields (a favorite in this region during migration), or even shallow ponds and pools (for the taller guys like the Yellowlegs), with Purple Sandpipers you’re exploring the rocky wave-swept shoreline. If you see rocks getting pummeled by waves and figure all the sensible shorebirds are a kilometer away on the sandy beach, you might be in perfect Purple habitat.

Not Purple Sandpiper habitat - no rocks and the Peregrine doesn't help either.

Sarah and I dipped on a reported Purple Sandpiper in the town of Harrisville on the Lake Huron shore in November. We also just barely missed one in the town of Oscoda a bit further south. By the time the birds in Muskegon were being reported, Sarah had moved downstate to Lansing and I was still in the frozen inland up north wrapping up things at the house there.

On stunningly gorgeous January morning, I ventured south to visit my wife and decided to make the trip 385 miles instead of 175 by diverting to the Lake Michigan shore for some birding. A Peregrine Falcon that allowed me to watch him enjoying lunch for 15 minutes in Ludington State Park was an auspicious start.

Sadly, it didn’t pan out for the sandpipers. I walked the break-wall and stood at the end for an hour enjoying Common Goldeneyes, Horned Grebes, and the usual gulls. The fishermen there told me the sandpipers had been around that morning, but there was no sign of them in the afternoon. That was really fine with me. I knew I’d have a chance to bring Sarah back in a couple days and we’d get the lifer together as we always try to do. Birding (and nature watching in general) is a team hobby for us. We both enjoy it immensely and it’s a special part of our relationship. Any bird seen when your partner isn’t with you is somewhat less exciting, but a lifer can be particularly bittersweet.

This is good Purple Habitat - especially when they've been reported here for weeks.

And so it came to pass that two short days later Sarah and I jumped in the Prius, stuffed our birding buddy Josh in the backseat with the optics, and headed out to Muskegon. The weather report wasn’t making me too happy, but I held out high hopes. When we got there, there were waves crashing completely over the break-wall sending spray fifty feet into the air. Purple Sandpipers like waves, but this was a bit much. I scanned potential habitat on the leeward side of the wall with no luck. There would be no lifers today. Not for us, at least. We stopped by the sewage ponds (it’s a birder thing) and got Josh his life Snowy Owl. That made the trip worthwhile for all of us. A lifer makes a good trip, even if it isn’t yours.

Adult male, no less.

The story may have ended there, but I’m a birder. I decided to recreate my double-distance return to the north two days later and go from Point A to Point B via Point M, Muskegon. First week of January, 50 degrees Fahrenheit, perfect calm on Lake Michigan’s typically blustery shore. Absurdly weird weather. I threw the scope on my shoulder and began strolling out toward the break-wall. As the path left the sandy beach, I glanced at the first rocks of the wall and saw two Purple Sandpipers standing there returning my gaze. Three yards away. Lifer. And I didn’t even smile.

I spent an hour with the birds, mostly just watching them probing the rocks for tasty invertebrates and ignoring the gentle waves. I took a break to scope a gorgeous pair of Long-tailed Ducks and a male Common Goldeneye. When I figured I’d drank in the birds enough to sate my personal shorebird lust for one winter morning, I returned to the car and drove straight home, alone. Sarah was back in the city getting ready for work. I knew we’d be back together in a new home in a few short weeks, and not long after that we’d be adventuring around during spring migration.

For now, I was driving through the wilds of Michigan on a gorgeous mid-winter day and musing not about seeing Purple Sandpipers, but that Sarah had missed them. I was wishing I hadn’t been able to find them until we found them together on a beach in Virginia next year. Without my partner to share them with, the Purple Sandpiper was the worst lifer ever. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Happy Valentine’s Day. And, Sarah, there’s a rocky cove on Maine’s Downeast coast with our name on it – and Calidris maritima on every slimy rock.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia. Minutes after getting our lifer Blackpoll Warbler.


  1. Really enjoyed reading this Kirby, thanks for sharing!

    I got my first PUSAs this year too, though I must admit it was mostly through dumb luck and accidents that the sighting came about.

    I hope you've been swamped with birds in the mean time.
    Laurence Butler

    1. Thanks, Laurence. The Ruddy Turnstone is one of my wife's favorites, so I'm sending her over to your blog to see your post from the 27th. She'll probably never come back!

      Hard to believe it's fall migration time already for our shorebird friends.