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Blane Klemek column: Shorebird after shorebird, so many to see

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Some of the most fascinating birds of the world belong to a group known simply as "shorebirds." But here is where simplicity stops.

Shorebirds are part of a huge group of birds belonging to the avian Order Charadriiformes, which is made up of several families, subfamilies and species of swimming and wading birds.

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According to "The Sibley Guide to Birds," there are five families of shorebirds composed of 23 genera and 62 species, many of which either migrate through Minnesota or breed and nest here.

The jacanas are tropical birds with long legs and incredibly long toes. The long toes help these birds walk across lily pads as they search for food. Oystercatchers are large shorebirds with black heads and red bills that feed mostly on clams. Their bills, which are laterally compressed, enable them to open the shells of mollusks with ease.

Jacanas and oystercatchers, however, are not found in Minnesota, whereas species of the remaining three families are. Even so, not all members representing these three families of shorebirds will be observed in Minnesota.

My birding life-list consists of little more than simple notations inside my field guidebook. A number of notations are indicated next to the birds' illustrations, complete with dates and places, while other observations are actual checkmarks on the provided species checklist.

The vast majority of my so-noted shorebirds were first observed in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota. A number of those Great Plains shorebirds became constant sources of pleasure for me. During those magnificent summers of conducting bird surveys across the expansive and abundant grasslands and wetlands of North Dakota, I was enthralled by the unending diversity of this marvelous group of birds.

At the top of the list of my favorite shorebirds is the upland sandpiper. I also affectionately referred to this species of shorebird as the "uphill" sandpiper, in humorous reference to the bird's habit of alighting within the short grasses atop summits overlooking wetlands below.

But above all, it is the melancholy wolf-whistles, delicate touchdown landings, and the ever-so-careful folding of their wings to their sides that endear me so. Indeed, throughout the prairie and rangeland of the west third of Minnesota, including western Becker County, and Clay, Norman, Mahnomen and Polk counties, and parts of Clearwater County, the delightful upland sandpiper is there to observe and enjoy, too.

Another special shorebird is the lobe-toed, clownish-acting Wilson's phalarope. While just three species of phalaropes exist in North America, only the Wilson's phalarope nests in Minnesota. The breeding plumage of the male Wilson's, though not quite as brilliant as the red and red-necked phalaropes, displays a striking black stripe over the eyes and along each side of their neck.

I frequently -- no, always -- stopped whatever I was doing, as I will yet today, to watch the antics of feeding phalaropes. These shorebirds, unlike most other shorebirds, spend a great deal of time swimming. Their whirligig swimming style is actually by design, and not the seemingly nervous behavior it appears to be. The more agitated their surface-spin is, the more churned the water becomes, and thus, the more particles of food arises for them to consume.

Yet another shorebird is the willet. This stocky bird has a most distinctive wing pattern and voice. Again, as is the case with the vocalizations of upland sandpipers, the call of the willet will always remind me of bountiful prairie wetlands and wind-swept, grassy-covered hills. Here is a bird that is fairly nondescript while standing still or wading in the shallows of a wetland. But the voice and wings will give him away.

"Pilly-WILL-WILLET, pilly-WILL-WILLET!" says this remarkable shorebird. The chance exists that you won't notice him until after, of course, his vociferous cry startles you into spinning around to see his flight. And then you'll note his prominent wing markings: white stripe between dark primaries, secondaries, axillaries, and underwing and primary coverts.

Lest I forget, there are sandpipers, too, so many to mention, so difficult to view. Together they ascend from mudflats with such rapidity that one is frequently left with no more than fleeting glimpses of pulsating, dazzling flocks of so many silver dollars.

You just might have enough time to jot "UNSA" (unidentified sandpiper) onto your checklist, and, if you're lucky, you'll have a memory that won't fail you before the field guidebook can be searched and a positive identification made.

Shorebirds galore -- the graceful and blue-legged American avocet with its long and re-curved beak; the beloved and plump little gentlemen shorebird of the woods, our own timberdoodle, a.k.a., American woodcock; the marbled godwit and its incredibly long bill; the raucous killdeer feigning, once again, a broken wing; the winnowing common snipe high above a springtime marsh; and the endangered piping plover that nests in northern Minnesota.

There were also the three American golden-plovers I once saw while plowing a field in Polk County. And the nearly invisible semipalmated plover I watched incubating a clutch of eggs on a rocky sandbar along an Alaskan river. And how enthralling it was observing the dozen or so ruddy turnstones on the shoreline of a flooded North Dakota wetland years ago.

Shorebirds, shorebirds, and more shorebirds -- such wonderful birds for us to appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.

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