A small, grey-brown sandpiper spotted in Thedford, Ont. proved that one doesn’t need to be the flashiest bird to catch people’s eye. The first sighting of a marsh sandpiper in Canada brought enthusiastic birders to the region in the hope of catching a glimpse of this unique find.
The marsh sandpiper stands on long, yellow legs that allow the bird to wade through shallow marshlands in search of food. The migratory species, which can be found in eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, has a distinctive white “eyebrow” marking above its eye.
“The marsh sandpiper is native to Eurasia, and so this is the first time it’s officially been recorded in Canada,” says Natasha Barlow, an Ontario projects biologist with Birds Canada, who made the trip to see the Thedford marsh sandpiper. “Poor weather conditions can push birds off of their flight path, especially during migration when they may be making long-distance flights, and emergency landings in areas where they usually wouldn’t be (like in Thedford) can occur,” she adds.
The vagrant marsh sandpiper was first spotted by birder James Holdsworth at the Thedford Sewage Lagoons, as reported by CTV News London. The exciting find prompted the Ontario Field Ornithologists to arrange access to the property for birders to witness this once-in-a-lifetime sighting.
One of those birders was Paul Riss, who goes by the moniker “the punk birder” and was featured in the CBC Gem documentary, Rare Bird Alert. Riss earned his nickname thanks to his efforts to break down the stereotypes of old, stuffy birdwatchers; instead, he is a proponent that birdwatching is a hobby for everyone.
Riss made an eight hour trek to see the marsh sandpiper, noting that he was not likely to get this opportunity again in his lifetime. Along the drive he was “praying to the bird gods that it was still going to be there.” He arrived at the site and trained his scope.
“There it was,” he says, “with that lovely white marking on its back. I couldn’t believe it.”
He observed the sandpiper walking around in the shallows, stopping to feed and preen its feathers. “It was lovely to see,” he says. “The people I was with, they were so happy.”
For those interested in experiencing the thrill of spotting a new species for the first time, Riss recommends that people connect with the Ontario Field Ornithologists to learn the ins and outs of birdwatching. But he emphasizes that birding as a hobby can be as casual as keeping watch on a backyard birder feeder. “To be a birder, you do not need to chase rare birds,” he says. “If you really enjoy birds, you’re a great birder.”