Rare sightings entice hundreds of bird watchers

November 18, 1990|By New York Times News Service

RYE, N.Y. -- A wood sandpiper in the marshes here coaxed Bill Tucker from bed at 5:30 a.m. one Saturday earlier this month to drive all the way from Washington. Keep in mind that this is someone who has already seen 2,500 birds, including the wood sandpiper.

"I've seen it before, but I haven't seen it this week," explained Mr. Tucker, his eyes trained on the long grasses where the sandpiper was probably hiding at high tide. "This is a very, very rare bird," he said.

Rare, indeed. The wood sandpiper, which breeds in Scandinavia and northern Russia and winters in southern Africa and Australia, has not been seen in North America outside Alaska since 1907.

That is why hundreds of bird watchers from as far away as Virginia and New Hampshire have flocked to Rye's marshes in the last 48 hours.

The presence of the bird does not mean that wood sandpipers are starting to inhabit Rye, a wealthy suburb 25 miles northeast of midtown Manhattan.

L It simply means that this particular wood sandpiper is lost.

"His compass is off," said Greg Budney, the curator of the Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca.

But the bird people, many of whom keep competitive "life" and "North American" lists of birds, those identified over the years or on a single continent, were thrilled.

"This will be a lifer," said Dick Bell of Philadelphia, who has 639 species on his North American list and 1,600 on his life list.

Reached at his home in Old Lyme, Conn., Roger Tory Peterson, the 82-year-old author of the legendary "A Field Guide to the Birds" and other guides that together have sold more than 15 million copies, said the sighting would attract "the hard-core birders, the listers" from all over the country.

"This is one of the most exciting strays or stragglers of the last several years," he said. "I'm delighted."

With scores of people clustered on a spit of sand shortly after dawn, their spotting scopes propped on tripods, it seemed that the body of water in front of them was something closer to Loch Ness than Long Island Sound.

The 8-inch-long bird with gray, brown and white-spotted

feathers, which looks very much like the solitary sandpiper common to these parts, stood quietly on a mud flat in the unseasonably warm sun.

When the tide rose in mid-morning, he flew off to a nearby marsh, winning a round of applause as he landed.

The sandpiper seems to have been lucky enough to have landed in the Marshlands Conservancy, a nature preserve owned by Westchester County.

The preserve is adjacent to the Rye Golf Club, which has been very cooperative with the migratory birders -- letting them use its parking lot and even posting drawings of the bird with arrows pointing toward the mud flats.

Tom Burke of Rye first saw the bird on a Wednesday, but he was not sure what it was.

On Thursday, he photographed the bird, recorded its loud, sharp call, and positively identified it as Tringa glareola, one of some 40 species of sandpipers.

Because Mr. Burke runs the Audubon Society's Rare Bird Alert hot line in New York City -- a tape-recorded phone message of noteworthy birds seen in the area -- the sighting was immediately added. Within hours, other states' rare-bird hot lines had picked up the news.

"It's the type of thing that every bird watcher hopes for, and his name will go down in the records," Mr. Budney said of Mr. Burke. "It's an indication of how good a birder you are to pick things out like this."

Some bird watchers speculated that the bird was blown across the Atlantic from Europe in a severe storm or that he worked his way down from Alaska. But his future is uncertain.

TC His North American counterparts, the solitary and spotted sandpipers, are already on their way to the southeastern United States and West Indies for the winter.

"He's so far off course that stress could play a major role in whether he survives," Mr. Budney said. "I doubt that he will breed with our sandpipers."

"He could be a bachelor for the rest of his life," said Andrew Rubenfeld, a 44-year-old teacher who trekked here from Manhattan. "And if it stays this warm, he'll think he's in the Sahara."

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