September is a prime month for shorebird bird migration in Georgia. One of the most interesting is the buff-breasted sandpiper, a bird that prefers open, grassy habitats and not ocean shores. The “buffies,” as birders sometimes call them, show up mostly in late August and September and are most often seen on sod farms across the state. Because buffies breed on the arctic Alaskan and Canadian tundra, they prefer treeless open grasslands for foraging. When they stop through Georgia, they are en route to the pampas of Argentina near Buenos Aires as well as similar ecosystems in Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. Their long migration, covering about 11,000 miles one way, is a miraculous phenomenon. When buffies find a good place to take a few days of R & R from flying such as a sod farm, they feed on insects by walking along the ground and picking them off the grass.
I photographed the buff-breasted sandpiper in the photos below in Bostwick, Georgia near Madison on 31 August 2010. At that time, the sod farm had some puddles of rain water that the birds were using for drinking and bathing. This bird appears to be a juvenile. Imagine that it was born this past summer and is finding its way on its own to South America. Its parents don’t accompany it. The bird somehow knows when to leave the arctic tundra, where to go and how to get there! It will also know exactly when to leave South America next spring in order to arrive on the arctic tundra in time for the thaw and nesting. It will likely return to the same place where it was hatched this year. For someone who can’t always find his way around Atlanta, such a feat is breath-taking and miraculous.
The population of buff-breasted sandpipers is relatively small. Birdlife International (www.birdlife.org) estimates that the current population stands between 16,000 and 84,000 individuals and is decreasing. The decrease is probably due to the conversion of its winter habitat in South America. It is vulnerable to the destruction of its nesting habitat from oil drilling such as has been proposed for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWAR) in northern Alaska.
Let’s hope that this buffie doesn’t stop off in Barbados, where the British aristocracy continues to shoot thousands of threatened and endangered species for pleasure at their shooting clubs. They don’t seem to care that our current diminished shorebird populations are still trying to recover from being decimated by market hunters a long time ago. The Eskimo Curlew is probably extinct today because of market hunting.
If you want to see a buffie next September, try one of our Georgia sod farms. A spotting scope is usually needed since the birds are often some distance from the roads. Remember: the best thing we all can do to protect wildlife is to conserve land.