The Mast-Head: Going Missing

Plovers and sandpipers live at top speed

Among the pleasures of a late summer day here is being at the beach and watching small shorebirds race to pick food from the wet sand as each wave recedes. As the next wave advances, they dance up the beach, returning in a seeming instant to probe again with their beaks.

Plovers and sandpipers live at top speed, as befits birds that follow migration routes twice a year that can reach many thousands of miles. In miniature, their bursts of flight from one place to the next along the water line, like confetti shot from a cannon, give a hint of their lives on a hemispheric and global scale.

World Shorebirds Day, as declared by a group of British birders, is today, with bird counts by individuals and organizations accepted through Tuesday. Here, Frank Quevedo, the director of the South Fork Natural History Museum, is leading a count beginning this morning, the third SoFo has done.

The idea is that annual tallies by volunteers and professionals around the world can provide details about the birds’ distribution and population trends, and pinpoint species in need of greater conservation effort. As this is a digital age, checklists can be submitted by a smartphone app, ebird, available for IOS and Android.

On a still, muggy morning this week, I was disappointed not to see a single shorebird on the Gardiner’s Bay beach. Five or six cormorants lingered on the wooden swim raft floating out front; maybe 25 more had staked out the nearby pound trap and were arrayed at wings’ length along the lines and stakes. On the beach itself, immature gulls of differing size stood impassively.

On most September days there are at least a few sandpipers around. That morning, with only the high-pitched love songs of insects on the air, nothing seemed to move, not even the water. Given the threats to shorebirds from all sides — habitat loss, climate change, competition from other species — it is difficult not to worry when none cuts through the stillness with a shrill call or the soft beat of its wings.