Peeps at Delta Park

By josh • 251 Birds, Landscapes, Nature, Plants and Fungi, Wildlife • 22 Aug 2012

Colchester (Chittenden County)
Delta Park IBA
Town #40

I grew up less than 10 miles from Delta Park, but I’d never been there until earlier this year.  It’s an unassuming place, with parking for four cars and a modest trail through the poison ivy to a beach littered with flotsam.  It’s a remarkable birding destination though, and this year’s low water levels have made the series of sandbars and mudflats that have formed north of the mouth of the Winooski an irresistible stop for shorebirds and waders.

I celebrated Bennington Battle Day by spending a few hours out at the delta, loaded down with camera, tripod, movable hide and chair, binoculars, and rapidly failing flip-flops.  The best shorebird viewing area is on the other side of a shallow (actually water-free this year) marsh, which ate my sandals entirely and caused me to ditch them as soon as I hit the sand.

It turned out to be a magical day to be on the lake.

Delta Park Shoreline

Delta Park Shoreline, Tamron AF18–250mm f/3.5–6.3 AF Di II at 18mm, f/11, 1/250s, ISO 400, linear polarizer

For more on the geomorphology at work at the Winooski delta (and the reason for those huge tree stumps out in the lake), I highly recommend this post to the VTBirds list by Ian Worley from a few weeks ago.

Coming around the bend to a place where I could view the sandbars in the lake to the west, I immediately saw a large group of peeps and other shorebirds on the northernmost bar, and an even larger group of terns and gulls on the westernmost bar, far out into the lake.  I was lucky enough to see the continuing Baird’s sandpiper (lifer!) immediately, it’s strong buffy coloration clearly differentiating it from a white-rumped sandpiper a few meters away.  I was fortunate to see the Baird’s then- I didn’t see it again that day.

I set up my hide so that I had a clear view of all of the westerly sandbars in the hopes that the birds would eventually come to the mudflats on the beach.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/11, 1/640s, ISO 400

A group of peeps came to the shore before I’d even fully settled in.  They were cautious at first, but eventually they came so close that I couldn’t focus my big lens.  This group, which would visit me several times over the course of the next two hours, comprised six least sandpipers and one semipalmated sandpiper.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/9, 1/800s, ISO 400

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/11, 1/640s, ISO 400

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/7.1, 1/1250s, ISO 400

Being only five or six feet from these birds for a prolonged period gave me the opportunity to appreciate the fine plumage of the leasts this time of year…

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 400

…as well as the slightly webbed feet that give the semipalmated sandpiper its name.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/10, 1/800s, ISO 400

Though they were around for most of my time on the shore, a loose group of semipalmated plovers and more semipalmated sandpipers never made it close enough to my hide for decent photos.  Just before I had to leave, a sanderling and a pair of lesser yellowlegs arrived to give me a brief hope that I might be witnessing the stilt sandpiper that had been observed at Delta Park earlier in the week.

Shorebirds weren’t the only birds around- I tallied 39 species in about 2.5 hours, moving little except for the walk to the shore and back.  Highlights were a Philadelphia vireo (lifer!) traveling with a noisy group of red-eyed vireos, twelve Caspian terns, twenty-two common terns, three great black-backed gulls (two of which were first year birds- they are as massive and mottled as a skua!), two osprey, and a flock of least 1650 double-crested cormorants that sounded like a train passing when they took off to move north toward Mills Point.  That many cormorants must churn up quite a few fish, because as soon as they passed by the terns and some of the gulls lifted to follow them, circling the cormorant flock as it settled.

Six great egrets fished in the marsh north of the beach, periodically crossing in front of me to work the delta area.

Great Egret

Great Egret, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/10, 1/800s, ISO 400

In this photo you can just make out a pair of Caspian terns on the westernmost sandbar.  The houses on the far shore are on Corlaer Bay near Keeseville, New York, about seven miles to the southwest.

All told, my brief visit yielded two life birds, seven first-of-years, and eight new species for my Chittenden County list.  Given how rarely I get out these days and how little I’ve been able to travel, that’s a fantastic day’s birding.

Delta Park, Colchester

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