Cold in a stiff west wind, birders optimistically stood with binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras, surveying a large puddle of rainwater in a western Carver County field.

They were looking for a bird of distinction, but not a distinct bird.

This was Sunday, beginning not long after daylight, continuing under dark clouds masking sunset. It was Day 5 of what can be considered Minnesota's avian event of the year.

The bird was a sharp-tailed sandpiper, lacking a prominent namesake tail as identification clue.

Instead, this Siberian nester, which should have been on its way to off-season in Australia, far too much resembled shorebirds more common to these parts.

Pectoral sandpipers, doppelgängers for the star, outnumbered the headliner by maybe 50 to one. The identification keys were a buffy breast on the sharpie plus a white eyebrow and a ringed eye. Those marks are bolder on paper than on the bird.

Light, angle of vision, grassy hiding places in the big puddle all made the hours uncertain for wishful hunters.

The hunt is on

Early in the week, an exploring pair of sharp-eyed birders found the visitor. They were touring rural roads, looking for the flooded fields and pastures attractive to migrant shorebirds needing food and a nap.

Word of bird sightings spreads quickly these days, with e-mail, Facebook and Twitter alerting what eventually became dozens of watchers arriving through the week. Most were hoping to see a bird they had never seen before.

Some did. Some didn't. Some thought they did.

I was there Saturday morning and twice on Sunday. I filled Sunday's interlude with a football game — the sighting less than a critical event for me. I had seen this species in Alaska in 1998, a date provided by a friend with a memory precision-tuned to birds.

Alaska is a much more likely place to see sharp-tailed sandpipers. The bird also is seen now and again along the West Coast. You would hardly expect to find it within an hour's drive of the Guthrie Theater.

The big event

Birders renew friendships at these events, greetings that might be exchanged only on the happenstance sighting of a bird. Small talk is made. Highly focused minutes/hours are broken by abrupt comments from people hunched into their optics.

"I have the bird."

"I think that's it."


Sighting directions are of varied value. There are few landmarks out there in the puddle other than the birds, and birds move.

There were three or four other shorebird species present, two dozen trumpeter swans, some geese and ducks, and a swirl of swallows foraging over the water. One afternoon a rogue peregrine falcon made its own shorebird hunt.

At sunset on Sunday there were eight observers left on the roadside, watching the water. None could say for certain where the sandpiper was. Here? Maybe. In other wet fields up the road? Maybe. Is it worth a try again tomorrow? Maybe.

It's the hope implicit in maybe that brings us out in the first place. Maybe might bring us back. Maybe is exciting. Maybe warms the chilly wind.

Read Jim Williams' birding blog at