At a Nature Conservancy project site in Skagit County this summer, a long-legged transient caused a flap.
The drifter in question was a Wood Sandpiper, a bird that winters in Southeast Asia and Africa. For it to end up in Washington state, it had to veer way off course. Sightings like this are known as “mega-rarities” in the birding community.
“If accepted by the Washington Bird Records Committee, which is likely given the photos and number of people that saw it, this would be the first documentation of a Wood Sandpiper in Washington ever,” Conservancy scientist Julie Morse said.
The bird was spotted at a farm field that is flooded as part of the Conservancy’s Farming for Wildlife project. The Farming for Wildlife program provides farmers with incentives to flood fields as part of their crop rotation practices, creating much-needed habitat for migrating shorebirds.
The Skagit River Delta is a critical stop on the Pacific Flyway. Biologists surveying the Skagit and adjacent Stillaguamish deltas have counted more than 30,000 shorebirds during both fall and spring migrations.
Ryan Merrill, a Conservancy contractor, spotted the wood sandpiper during a shorebird survey at the project site. He had observed the bird before, while vacationing in Thailand.
“I was really surprised to see it here,” Ryan said. “There’s never been a sighting in Washington before. There's only been a few total sightings in the lower 48."
Within 24 hours of Merrill’s sighting, the birder paparazzi was en route. More than 100 birders from Seattle, Oregon and even California flocked to the Skagit, hoping for a glimpse of the wood sandpiper.
Currently, four fields in the Skagit Valley are flooded as part of the Farming for Wildlife project. Fall migration is in full swing, with plovers, sandpipers, and dunlin taking advantage of the added habitat.
August and September are their best times to view fall migration in Washington. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a “mega-rarity.”
“That field had only been flooded a couple days before. Had the sandpiper shown up a couple days earlier – that habitat wouldn’t have been there,” Merrill said.