Bird enthusiasts flock to Summit County to see state’s first-ever purple sandpiper
December 22, 2016
If you've made the drive either direction between Frisco and Breckenridge in the last week, you've seen scores of people out on the south end of Dillon Reservoir attempting to catch a glimpse of something special.
The cars congregate near Leslie's Curve along State Highway 9 each morning so people can make the snowy trek, toting heaps of camera gear down to the frozen section of the lake to capture a memory of an arctic shorebird known as the purple sandpiper. The recent — and seemingly confused — visitor has taken up temporary residence in Summit since at least this past Friday. The bird's appearance is an avian dream for the state's birders because it's the first-ever documented case of its presence in the state.
"It's more than rare," said Alison Holloran, executive director for Audubon Rockies. "It's bizarre. I don't know what to say about it except perhaps it's blown off course and lost its way. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, unless you're going up to Nova Scotia or parts of Canada in the summertime."
The small, orange-beaked bird typically breeds in northern Canada and winters along the American Northeast, not straying too far from this migration path. In recent years, however, the purple sandpiper has been recorded within the region, first showing up in southwest Utah in 2010, central Oklahoma three years later, and once each in western Kansas and Montana in 2015.
"This is a bird that generally sticks to the East Coast and doesn't even get that far down," said Bill Kaempfer, former president of the Colorado Field Ornithologists. "It's a rare bird in Florida, for example."
Kaempfer, a 35-year vet of the bird-watching hobby, said he's observed about 600 unique species in that time, 435 just in the state. The Colorado Birds Records Committee, a council that works directly with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, had previously certified 501 different birds on the state list. The purple sandpiper's presence now makes 502, and it's one that Kaempfer was after before he made the drive from Boulder to cross it off his bucket registry.
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"I'll tell you, on Thursday night I happened upon a list I'd written for myself 25 years ago of my 10 most-wanted bird species," he recalled. "Of the 10 since that time, I'd seen eight, and one of the two remaining was the purple sandpiper. Not 48 hours later I was looking at it."
Kaempfer, just the same as many of the droves of enthusiasts who have since made the pilgrimage to the icy banks of Dillon Reservoir in the last week, admits he was skeptical when he first heard rumors of the bird. The fact that two 13-year-old boys discovered it makes it all the more improbable.
Twin brothers Jack and Ryan Bushong braved blizzard conditions a week ago today to pursue their pastime and explore the frosty edges of the local water body after a day skiing at Breckenridge with their father. While most kids their age might still be spending their time trying to nab uncommon Pokémon with their smartphones in hand, the Louisville, Colorado, residents prefer the real thing and have been casually birding for five years before getting more serious in the last two.
On Friday, they were just aiming to spot a more ordinary fowl to check off their list. But through budding birding know-how, and some admitted luck, the studious siblings happened upon something quite a bit more extraordinary.
"Yeah, I thought it was highly unlikely," Jack explained Thursday by phone. "I was trying to remember everything I'd seen just looking at bird books and field guides for many years."
"At first we didn't know if it was a sandpiper," added Ryan. "Since we were scoping it at a long distance, we had to get closer to confirm what we thought it was."
They believed it might be a dunlin, another diminutive species known for wading, or maybe even a rock sandpiper. But the bird's bill was clearly orange, not the dull yellow they'd remembered of the other type, so they began to settle on the purple variety, snapped some blurry images in haste because of the weather and sent them off to the experts. By morning, the state's birding community was in a tizzy.
The boys stayed over for the night in the family's part-time home in Frisco to anxiously accept a landing party the next day and reveal where they'd witnessed the bird. The authorities on the subject arrived, and not long after were celebrating at a nearby human watering hole. Hundreds of bird-watchers have made the trip since.
"I just thought it was a really neat experience, and what I've been hoping for since I started birding," said Ryan. "A lot of people are happy and joyful they got to witness this bird in such odd conditions for it."
Why the bird is here in the first place remains a mystery. It's possible that during the species' standard late migration, the bird either got lost or was simply forced to seek shelter during last week's snowstorm. Even if this purple sandpiper has been able to successfully forage in the winter destination ahead of prime mating season, it remains out of its element and there are some concerns it may not survive.
"It probably doesn't have what it's looking for food and resource-wise," said Holloran, "so it's more prone to a total loss of life, because it just shouldn't be here. Maybe it will somehow pull through and shouldn't be there long, so I assume it will get up and go. It's got a long way to go to winter grounds."
Studies have shown the heating of the earth from changes in the climate has already led to altered bird migration patterns. They can end up in places earlier in the year than usual — or in other locations they've not been detected before. But because this one purple sandpiper is flying solo, experts say it's difficult to draw any such scientific conclusion as to why it landed in Summit.
Based on the markings of its plumage after seeing the bird up close, Kaempfer thinks this purple sandpiper could be a yearling. As a result, and because birds tend to be creatures of habit with migratory cycles, it's possible that if it perseveres it might even return to the area in future seasons.
"I would not rule it out," said Kaempfer. "Birds have some fidelity to territories."
That would keep the birding community coming, and they're continuing to show up each day, parking on the roadside near Summit High School in the hopes of sneaking a peek of the prized purple sandpiper before it potentially flies the coop. And for people like Kaempfer, Dillon Reservoir is not a place he ever imagined would help him fulfill a significant goal of his life.
"We're happy to have rare birds," he said. "It makes people excited. And when the purple sandpiper is seen, it's on the East Coast because it's a winter bird. I just never felt the urge to go to Cape Cod in November. I certainly never thought it would be in Colorado."