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Grasspipers are the other shorebirds - The Galveston County Daily News : Guest Columns

November 27, 2014

Guest column Grasspipers are the other shorebirds

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Posted: Sunday, April 6, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 12:01 am, Sun Apr 6, 2014.

We learn very quickly in bird school that shorebirds like sandpipers and plovers live along the shore, thus the name.

Sandpipers have longer bills and probe into the mud while plovers have short bills that snag tiny life off the beach surface.

However, there are several species that prefer pastures, fields and lawns that are brown, and they are informally known as grasspipers.

Perhaps the most familiar is the Killdeer, a plover with rings around the neck. They will nest in peoples’ yards, and often feign, meaning they act crippled to lure potential predators away from their eggs or young.

They say their name in a whistled voice and many duck hunters dislike them because they sometimes warn waterfowl of gunners.

Galveston, especially, has two species of mind-boggling grasspipers that are often seen on peoples’ lawns, digging for earthworms.

They are most easily distinguished by the direction their bills curve. Marbled Godwits have recurved bills, which are pink at the base, and they bend way over to probe the ground.

Long-billed Curlews live up to their name, with decurved beaks like the distantly related ibis on the lawns.

This week’s FeatherFest is an excellent time to see the “other” curlew, called a Whimbrel, which prefers Fiddler Crabs to worms.

Sadly, many decades ago, our fair island was the chief stopping point for the now-extinct Eskimo Curlew, wiped from the face of the Earth by Louisiana hunters.

A grasspiper often seen in my Indian Beach neighborhood is the Upland Sandpiper, big-eyed for the keenest vision and beautiful when seen among the early spring flowers. In company with them are sometimes other species, such as smaller Pectoral, Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers.

Galveston is right on the flyway from the South American wintering grounds to the Great Plains corridor to their Arctic nesting grounds.

A favorite long-distant grasspiper is the Golden Plover, which flies through from southern South America to the Arctic in early spring.

They don’t molt into their breeding plumage until they reach the northern United States. Then they join several other shorebirds in attaining black undersides to use the 24-hour, low sunlight in the Arctic to warm their bellies and incubate their eggs quickly.

An advantage for grasspipers is that tides have little effect on their feeding and resting. Of recent import, grasspipers also don’t run the risk of getting oiled by the recent spill, unlike many of their related species.

Plus, our agricultural fields up through the Great Plains remain good corridors, despite being altered by our species. This is nowhere more true than the rice fields where grasspipers may be seen in abundance.

Oddly enough, in fall, when grasspipers are heading south, there is a great divergence.

Some return down the Plains, like Upland Sandpipers, while others like Marbled Godwit and Long-billed Curlew winter commonly on Galveston and other similar habitat.

But another group, which includes Golden Plover strikes out down the Atlantic abyss, often flying for days, crossing the equator and settling into southern South America for the winter.

Indeed, our grasspipers are spread apart by thousands of miles, but each April they’ll assemble again in Galveston.