Some 20 adventurous people joined me for an Ogeechee Audubon field trip to Tybee’s North Beach on a hot morning in mid-August. In addition to enjoying the birds, we were also contributing to science by conducting a shorebird survey.

Technically speaking, not all the birds found at the shore are considered to be “shorebirds.” That designation belongs to a family that includes plovers, sandpipers, knots, oystercatchers, curlews, godwits, yellowlegs, willets, and other mostly drab brownish birds that hang out on sandy beaches, mudflats, and muddy or grassy fields.

We had seen countless laughing gulls and royal terns, and tallied 30 sanderlings, 24 ruddy turnstones, a single least sandpiper, and two willets, when I spied a tiny marshmallow puffball of a bird — a piping plover.

 

Piping plovers get special billing, not only because they are very cute, but also because they are currently considered to be endangered. Their populations are closely monitored and many are banded. We spied a second “piper” near the first and were delighted to find that both were wearing bling. I was able to get close enough to photograph each bird.

Continuing down the beach, we found two more piping plovers. Were these different birds, or had our original two flown ahead of us? My photos revealed that one of these birds was banded and the other had no bands. The bands on the first one did not match those of the first two birds, so our piping plover count rose to four.

Later that afternoon, I sent the photos to several groups of people doing research on piping plovers. Within an hour, I heard back from Alice Van Zoeren at the University of Minnesota. She recognized the birds as “our birds” — just hatched this summer at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the northwest coast of Michigan.

Because these birds were banded, they could tell us at least some of their story. I wish they could have told us more. I’d like to know how they managed that first migration. Did they travel together in a flock? Were there any older birds with them to show the way? Where and how often did they stop to rest? What did they find to eat?

It seems miraculous that a 7.25-inch bird with a 19-inch wingspan and weighing 1.9 ounces could travel more than 1,000 miles over an unfamiliar route and arrive safely on Tybee Island. Historically, many of the piping plovers from the Great Lakes population do winter in our area.

Many of our shorebirds are long-distance migrants, regularly traveling between breeding grounds in the Arctic and wintering territories in South America. Researchers at Manomet in Massachusetts have attempted to fill in some of our knowledge gaps about the lives of these birds by equipping whimbrels with satellite transmitters.

The whimbrel is a large, cinnamon-brown shorebird with a long, down-curved bill. They stop here each spring and fall to chow down on the fiddler crabs that are abundant in our coastal salt marsh. Data from the satellite transmitters has shown that many whimbrels leave northeast Canada and migrate non-stop for 2,500 miles to reach the coast of South America. Some stop off in the islands of the Caribbean, while others migrate closer to the coast and stop in our area.

Two days later, I was standing on the beach on the north side of Fort Pulaski when a single whimbrel flew in and landed. I wanted to ask, “Are you an adult or a juvenile? Where are you coming from? Where are you headed?”

 

Seven black-bellied plovers were the next to arrive. Some still had their summer plumage signature black bellies, while others had already molted to non-breeding tan or white bellies. When they raised their wings, I could see the black armpits that distinguish black-bellied plovers from American golden plovers.

Once again, I wished they could tell the tale of tundra nesting, chicks fledged, and the journey south that brought them to Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island.

When it comes to the lives of even our backyard birds, we have more questions than answers. I’d still like to know where my cardinals roost at night, and what they do to survive storms. So much to learn, so little time! If only birds could talk or we could understand. Good birding!

Bird enthusiast Diana Churchill can be reached via email at dichurchbirds@gmail.com.