I enjoy reading my old columns because I like to see if I got anything right. For instance, a few weeks ago, I wrote: “The problem with shorebirds is that they are not always at the shore.”
These words popped into my head once more as I nudged my boat into the cove at the north end of Chamberlain Lake, headwaters of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. There were shorebirds everywhere, deep in the Maine forest, far from saltwater.
I was there to knock a quest off of my bucket list. Nearly a century ago, loggers used trams and trains to move wood between northern lakes so they could be floated down the Penobscot River to the mills. When that tree supply was exhausted, two locomotives were left there in the woods on the edge of Eagle Lake, just a short walk from Chamberlain Lake. The locomotives are still there, an iconic piece of history not confined to a museum. Traditionally, they have provided an incentive for canoeists to paddle to the north end and take the short 15-minute walk through the woods.
But this time of year, the cove is mostly mud, necessitating a long mucky walk around the edge before reaching the woods. As I discovered, this mud was covered in shorebirds. There were greater and lesser yellowlegs. There were least sandpipers. There were semipalmated plovers. There were two black-bellied plovers. Or were they?
Hmmm. Don’t they look a little golden? Certainly they were not in breeding plumage. The underbellies were black, but whatever summer plumage was once present had faded into duller winter colors. I pondered further. The bills looked a little short, but there were no other plovers to compare them to. The white line above the eye was arched like a prom queen’s eyebrow, giving the bird a slightly “surprised” look.
Alas, they were on the mud, I was still trying to figure out how to get around the mud, and we went our separate ways. I visited the locomotives. Cool.
On the way back to my boat, skirting the mudflats as best I could, there they were again, somewhat distant. They flushed. As they flew away, I couldn’t miss the key detail. They were bronzed from head to tail, uninterrupted. Black-bellied plovers have white rump patches. American golden-plovers are colored a uniform mottled brown along the entire upper body, as these were. Not only were these rare shorebirds not at the seashore, they were deep in the North Maine Woods.
American golden-plovers are not as rare as a British Guiana 1 cent magenta postage stamp nor as rare as a 1913 Liberty head nickel nor as rare as a rational thought from Congress, but they’re close.
They didn’t used to be rare. American golden-plovers were one of the most abundant shorebirds in North America until the late 19th century, when market hunting decimated their numbers. There is a report of 48,000 plovers being shot in one day in New Orleans. When market hunting ended early in the 20th century, the plover recovered somewhat but never rebounded to historic levels. Still, it was luckier than the eskimo curlew, another plump shorebird that went from field to dinner plate in massive numbers. That bird never did recover, and it’s generally considered extinct.
Even today, the American golden-plover faces threats. It winters on the grasslands of Argentina in Patagonia. As more land is plowed, its habitat diminishes. The mere fact that it migrates so far is a wonder — and so is the route it follows. In spring, it travels an interior path through the middle of the continent, rushing up to arctic tundra to breed. It is never seen in Maine in spring. In autumn, it comes to the East Coast, and then flies offshore, nonstop, to South America. When Christopher Columbus approached the New World in 1492, he was alerted to the possibility of land by the presence of shorebirds passing by. Since it was October, it’s likely they were golden-plovers.
This offshore route to South America is one reason we don’t see many American golden-plovers in Maine in autumn. They mostly fly past us. But we do see some. They are occasionally mixed in with bigger flocks of black-bellied plovers. They need to fatten up before attempting the long flight, and some of that fattening is accomplished on our mudflats. Scan through the flock of black-bellied plovers, searching for one that’s just a little smaller. Most importantly, if it flies, watch its butt.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.