July and August is the time to search for Upland Sandpipers and Buff-breasted Sandpipers on large sod farms, like the Supersod Farm near Marshallville, GA.
I wanted to get out and do some birding this weekend but July is the summer birding doldrums. Some common spring breeders like Prairie Warblers and Orchard Orioles are already silently migrating south, almost everything has stopped singing, and it is blazing hot by 9am. There are few birding activities centered on late July and early August. An important exception, however, is sod-farm birding.
From late July until early September, large sod farms are the place to look for two bird species that are very hard to see in the southeastern US at any other time of the year or in any other habitat: Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. In addition, sod farms in late summer are great places to see many other species that can be generally hard to see in AL and GA like Pectoral Sandpiper, Common Ground-dove, and Horned Lark.
There are sod farms south of Auburn in Macon County Alabama, and I should probably focus my birding there, but the sod farms around Marshallville, Georgia, consistently produce double-digit Upland Sandpipers and fairly consistently Buff-breasted Sandpiper. By my Aug 31 trip date, Upland Sandpipers had already been reported for 2 weeks on Ebird at the Marshallville Supersod Farm. I knew I was early for Buff-breasted Sandpiper--they are more of a late August bird--but I was going to be traveling for most of the rest of August and I wanted to get out. So, off to Marshallville I headed.
One of the reasons I like going to the Marshallville area is that birders have established a good relationship with sod farm owners, and it is permissible to drive on gravel sod farm roads on weekends. The Supersod Farm has a very well maintained gravel road right through the best habitat and it is a birdy place.
Horned Larks are abundant breeders and Least Sandpipers are common late summer migrants at the Supersod Farm near Marshallville GA.
As soon as I pulled into the area by the main office, I had a Least Sandpiper mixed in with the many Killdeer along the edge of a puddle. There were also Horned Larks all over the place. Horned Larks are very scarce breeders in southern Georgia and Alabama but this sod farm supports a big population.
I drove south from the main headquarters building along a gravel access road toward the center of the artificial grasslands, and I soon spotted my main quarry--Upland Sandpipers. My first look was into the sun and the birds were far out. Going down the road gave me closer looks in much better light, although I never got closer than about 80 meters from an Upland Sandpiper. I counted 12 Upland Sandpipers in one loose flock spread out across about 100 meters of grass. It is the most Upland Sandpipers I've ever seen in one spot. In past year at peak times in mid-August, more than 20 Upland Sandpipers have been recorded at this spot.
I found 12 Upland Sandpipers in one loose flock on July 31, 2016 on the sod at the Supersod Farm near Marshallville, GA.
A bit further down the road I heard a singing Grasshopper Sparrow, a new bird for my Georgia list (which I just decided to start). Grasshopper Sparrows, along with Blue Grosbeaks and a few other species, are the rare exceptions to rule that birds quit singing in late July and August. I ended up hearing several singing Grasshopper Sparrows.
Grasshopper Sparrows were still singing in late July at the Supersod Farm in Marshallville GA.
The only shorebirds in this part of the sod farm were Killdeer and Upland Sandpipers, so I drove around a bit to look for other species. Directly across the highway from the headquarters building in a patch of longer grass, I found the best shorebird diversity for the day (3 species, up from the two species I was just looking at). These three species were the omnipresent Killdeer, 3 Pectoral Sandpipers, and about 2 dozen Least Sandpipers. It was hard to get an exact count of Least Sandpipers because they were mostly hidden by the grass. A head would just pop up every once in a while, but there were a lot of head popping up.
I spent the rest of the morning checking out two other sod farms--one just north of Marshallville on Dole's Road and other other north of Perry. Neither turned up anything particularly interesting. On the way to the Dole's Road site, however, I passed a big field of ripe black-oil sunflowers. This was essentially a 10-acre bird feeder, and the numbers of three species were impressive--I estimated 120 House Finches were in the field along with 250 Brown-headed Cowbirds and 250 Common Grackles. I'll be anxious to check this spot out later in the fall after they cut the sunflowers.