Post 4th of July Plover Chasing (and Dipping)

For the past few days, there have been a lot of reports coming in of a piping and snowy plover at Presque Isle State Park in Erie. Eventually, I couldn’t resist the temptation for any longer and (after finding a way for me to get there and back without missing much of the World Cup) my dad and I decided to give chase. We departed Pittsburgh at six in the morning, hoping to get to the park before it got too late into the morning. Presque Isle is a 2.5 to 3 hour drive from Pittsburgh so despite our early departure, we would not arrive until around nine. After a brief stop at a Tim Hortons for some donuts, we pulled into the parking lot for Beach 10 at Presque Isle. The plovers were at a location known as Gull Point which, despite being an excellent spot for migrating shorebirds, requires a lot of walking along a trail which is usually muddied nearly to the point of impassibility. Today was no exception as we found out when we were forced to move slowly, attempting to dodge a mud puddle every few minutes. What made the situation worse is that I received a Rare Bird Alert text message saying that the plovers had so far not made an appearance that morning. More anxious than ever, I continued slogging along, praying for the best. Finally arriving at the observation tower at Gull Point, I heard more bad news from a birder who was on their way out: they too hadn’t seen either plover. Despite this, I set up the scope and began to scan the beach. A flock of fifteen Caspian terns sat on the beach mixed into a flock of herring, ring-billed, and great black-backed gulls. A few common terns (they breed at Gull Point), a least sandpiper, a flock of double-crested cormorants, and three mute swans were all present as well. However, there was no sign of any plovers (except for the killdeer which were an almost constant presence). I settled down to wait for the plovers to show up and kept myself occupied by counting the great black-backed gulls in the gull flock and watching one of the common terns bring in fish for his mate who was sitting on a nest. The watching got a little more interesting at one point when a flock of lesser yellowlegs flew up from where I hadn’t seen them as they had been obscured behind vegetation. They weren’t the shorebirds I was hoping for but they, along with the least sandpiper, were a nice consolation prize. Another way that I spent my time at the tower was by studying and comparing the flight styles of the two tern species which were present. It was a lot of fun to watch both species and compare the bouncing, buoyant flight of the common terns to the elegant gliding flight of the Caspian terns. It was also interesting to note the structural differences between the two terns in flight. For example, the Caspians appeared longer and broader wing, while the common terns seemed more slim and had narrow, more pointed wings. DSC_9124 DSC_9117 DSC_9107 Caspian Tern

After two hours however, we decided to call it quits on the plovers. The heavy wind that had been blowing for the past few days had abated at some point the night before and it seemed likely that the plovers had taken advantage of the opportunity and left while they could. While I was dissapointed to dip out, I felt worse for some of the other birders who were there that day; two of them had come from as far away as Philadelphia and Lancaster County. DSC_9092 Osprey

Instead of going back the way we had come, my dad and I decided to walk along the beach to get back, just in case the plovers had simple relocated to another location. It turns out however, that the beach was a little bit more overgrown and driftwood covered than when I had last been to the point. That meant that instead of having an easy walk along the beach back to the car, we had to wade back through the lake to avoid the huge piles of driftwood. Needless to say, we saw no plovers. The icing on the cake however, is that I had forgotten to bring sunscreen with me that morning and so when we returned to the car, I discovered the negative side effect of standing on an exposed platform for two hours; my arms and back of my neck were both burned and painful. Despite all of this, I was very happy with our trip to Lake Erie. I trip to this part of Pennsylvania is never wasted and despite not getting the birds we were after, I was quite happy with the birds we had seen. We stopped one more time at Tim Hortons (for lunch and donuts this time) before we heading back down to Pittsburgh.

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