Let me tell you how it came about ... the first recorded sighting in the state of Washington of a little shorebird called the red-necked stint.
It was July 28, 2005, four summers ago. A group of birdwatchers, ranging from novice (needing expert help) to moderate (needing expert help), were spread out along the parking lot next to the 3 Crabs restaurant.
This was the Gulls & Shorebirds Class from the Dungeness River Audubon Center. The morning low tide had bottomed out and the incoming tide was moving the shorebirds closer, just ahead of the encroaching waters.
As instructed by the class leader, director Bob Boekelheide of the River Center, class members were training their binoculars and spotting scopes on flocks of shorebirds actively feeding in the mudflats and dried ulva (sea lettuce) of Meadowbrook Creek.
We saw many of the usual southwardly migrating sandpipers for this time of year, such as least sandpiper and juvenile western sandpiper. Our task was to look at as many individual birds as we could before something spooked the flock.
Suddenly Sally Marrone, newly moved here from Georgia, exclaimed, "Look at that one with the red face!"
When you're watching 100-200 nearly identical birds scurrying in all directions and frantically pecking in the seaweed, it's not easy to pick out one embarrassed bird, but eventually we all zeroed-in on the bird.
It was a very distinctive little sandpiper that clearly stood out from the others (once you found it) and sported a rufous-red coloration all over its face and neck.
For more than 10 minutes the class watched it, sometimes from as close as 50 feet.
Our intrepid leader, who had encountered these birds breeding in the Alaskan tundra up at Point Barrow some years ago, dashed for his car to retrieve his birding field guides, calling out over his shoulder, "Get pictures! Get pictures!"
Several of us had digital cameras, which we quickly put to use. Some of the resulting images turned out well enough to provide evidence for the sighting report, which was filed later with the Washington Bird Records Committee.
After careful comparison of field guides to our hyper-sandpiper, we concluded that Sally had made the first recorded observation in Washington state of a red-necked stint ... one of the more common breeding sandpipers across much of the Siberian Arctic!
Collectively, the western, semipalmated, and least sandpipers are known to local birders as "peeps." They are all quite similar, and confident identification requires some study and experience. The red-necked stint is slightly larger than the least sandpiper and slightly smaller than the western sandpiper, so you begin to get the picture.
In nonbreeding plumage, identification can be quite difficult; however, our bird still showed the rufous-red face and neck of its breeding plumage. Lucky for us, or it most surely would have gone unnoticed.
But what had brought this little traveler to our shores?
Most commonly this stint builds a nest on the ground in the arctic tundra throughout eastern Eurasia, and much less commonly in Alaska. The bird is a long-distance migrant, wintering in Southeast Asia, Australia, and as far south as Tasmania and New Zealand.
Highly gregarious, there it hangs out with other small sandpipers in their winter feeding grounds, walking the inter-tidal mudflats in search of insects and small invertebrates. Like other shorebirds, and us sometimes, it occasionally strays off course.
The lone bird stayed around for five days or so and appeared a few more times on the same mudflat where it was discovered. Word got out, and several hundred eager birdwatchers made the trek to 3 Crabs, hoping to glimpse the little vagrant that was oblivious to the fact that it had stepped from a mudflat into regional fame.
Reportedly, a woman from Maine phoned the River Center for directions to "3 Crabs-on-Meadowbrook." Whether she actually made the trip is anybody's guess.
It's that time of year again, and the migrants (and occasionally the vagrants) are passing through on their way south.
Check your tide tables and get out there between the highs and the lows. You might be there for the next vagrant, but remember, they're all beautiful and amazing creatures.
Author Bob Hutchison is a former president of the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society. Send comments to Dave Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-683-1355. Details of field trips are on the OPAS Web site, www.olybird.org.
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