Sandpipers and Plovers

Please consider all the images as copyrighted and ask permission to use them for any reason. Thanks, DEClapp.

There are a grand assortment of birds that use the edges of wet areas. They nest and feed in swamps, bogs, and wet meadows. They travel along the ocean edge while undertaking some of the longest migration known. And then there are those that swim, pluck, and dive in fresh, brackish, and salt water. Many will nest in forests or up north in tundra pools – very few stay within the confines of the USA. For many species the US is a piece of land that is in the way as they travel from their real homes to the south and their breeding territories to the north. The land between the tropics (Capricorn and Cancer) is where many of them reside for most of the year. This group is pretty much wholly migratory and what you see in the US and most mid-latitude countries is a seasonal passage. Birders and naturalists anticipate this and spend a lot of time during the month of May in the field. Birds, leaves, flowers – everything is breaking free from winter’s grip.

This is the time of year when I/we see lots of birds. They are often transient and only around for a day or two. In some cases they may nest and stop singing or calling after finding a mate. In any case birds get harder to see as June starts up. May is, and has been, our most exciting avian time.

I have several posts ready to write and they will be on shorebirds, gulls, terns, and a few other creatures of the coast. So let’s get started…… Oh, yes; the heading image is a breeding plumage Sanderling (SAND). This is a very pale sandpiper most of the year and one of the few that frequents ocean-side beaches. In breeding plumage, a short-lived phenomena, it is quite reddish.

One of the oddities of the sandpiper group is that there are several that are more “grasspipers” than sandpipers. They once dominated prairies and grasslands. Several are from the wet edges of pond, stream, and lakes. They consist of creatures like the American Woodcock, Long-billed Curlew, American Golden-Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Killdeer and the bird in the images above and below, the Upland Sandpiper (UPSA). The Upland Sandpiper is now a bird of airports and large managed grasslands. They were killed by the tens of thousands in the early 1900s and nearly wiped off the face of the earth. They are no where near as common as they once were.
Many of the upland sandpipers (and plovers) have a distraction display that will draw predators away from the nest, eggs, or young. The bird in the image above is not static it is actually fluttering and sort of dragging itself along the ground – in an effort to get me away from the nest. Upland Sandpipers are quite uncommon now as they are limited to dry open grasslands and this is not a common habitat.
These next two images are of the Willet (WILL). There is an eastern and western form; the eastern is a coastal bird and the larger western form breeds in inland areas but winters along the coast. The Willet is a large, stocky shorebird (sandpiper or wader) that has a surprise in its unfurled wing pattern.
Ta Da! Here is a Willet in flight. That stocky dull bird does have some flair after all. The black and white wing pattern and their noisy calls make them an easy bird to locate and identify. In the early 1900s there was a huge market for shore birds. They were shot coastally both spring and fall in great numbers and sent to city restaurants by the barrel-full. Millions were killed. Many species have never recovered. The Willet is now rapidly expanding back into the salt marshes of the northeast United States. They were not nesting in Massachusetts when I was a boy but they are now widespread throughout the state. Good for them!
Plovers are a group of 12 birds that are widespread across America. The Killdeer is the most widespread and the most commonly observed. The bird pictured above is the Piping Plover (PIPL) – named for it soft piping call. They are found on sandy beaches where they both feed and nest. It is a bird that has lost a great deal of its preferred habitat to human uses of the ocean beaches. They are easily disturbed when nesting, killed by animals both domestic and wild, run over by off-road vehicles and often see their nests destroyed by storms during periods of full moon high tides. They have been listed as “endangered” in the Great Lakes Region and “threatened” throughout its range. Thus those who want to drive the beaches in 4x4s are often disadvantaged by beach restrictions and closures put in place to allow the populations to successfully breed. Most beaches will open again sometime around the 4th of July but nest failures often see birds still nesting through July and into early August (occasionally).
Plovers have a short stubby bill and pick at food rather that probe for food the way many sandpipers, godwits, and curlews do. The bird above is a mid-plumage example of the Black-bellied Plover (BBPL). In breeding plumage it has a coal-black belly. In non-breeding plumage it is pretty much a speckled gray bird overall. The Europeans call this bird the Gray Plover for the plumage its in for 8-9 months of the year, where we use the Black-belly name for the plumage of those other 3-4 months. Both names can be defended. In flight this rather common plover always shows black “wing-pits”.
The bird above is the Dunlin (DUNL). Named for its non-breeding rather dull brown plumage. In breeding season they become the rather brightly colored sandpiper shown above. In the olden days of birding it was called the Red-backed Sandpiper after this bright breeding plumage. The longish bill is used for poking and probing. Part of the scientific name for this bird is “alpine” and refers to the fact that these guys fly well north into the tundra oof Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. They will then fly south to the tip of South America, southeast Asia, and even on down to northern Australia.
The Ruddy Turnstone (RUTU) is reddish (hence ruddy) and does in fact turn over stones (and shells and sea weed and more) on the beach to expose food items. They go through a significant plumage change as do many shore birds. They are always looking like Ruddy Turnstones but the sharp face pattern becomes muffled and the bright colors become drab. But the pattern remains and the small pointy bill stays they same. They are also far-northern nesters and then long distance migrants to the south. In fact they are not uncommon all around Australia and New Zealand after nesting on the Bering Sea in Siberian Russia. The birds I see in migration heading north may breed in far northeastern Greenland and then pass by again in August and September heading for Tierra del Fuego thousands of miles to the south.
Sometimes birds appear that are a bit of a surprise. The two birds above are Wilson’s Phalarope (WIPH) in the foreground and Lesser Yellowlegs (LEYL). The Phalarope shouldn’t be here. But something happened to get it off course during a migratory flight and it ended up out on Cape Cod. Perhaps it got caught up in rather strong winds up high while migrating and just kept going. Or perhaps its internal compass is broken. The phalarope is a western bird but isn’t really uncommon as a vagrant. Phalaropes as a group (three species total) have lobed toes. Not webbed feet and not skinny little toes; they have flap-like lobes on each toe. Their feeding habit is to swim in a tight circle drawing water critters to the surface where they pick them off the water’s surface. The lobed toes help in creating the currents and eddies that move the water.
This last one is the partially web-footed Semipalmated Sandpiper. It does have partially webbed toes. This allows it to walk easily over wet surfaces without sinking – kind of like snow-shoes for the wet shore line. This is also one of the birds that cause many beginning birders to become exasperated with shore birds. It is one of the 4-5 “peeps”; small gray or brownish sandpipers that have to be studied a bit in order to tell them apart. There is the Least Sandpiper (LESA), the White-rumped Sandpiper (WRSA), Baird’s Sandpiper (BASA), Western Sandpiper (WESA) and the Semipalmated Sandpiper shown here. They are all quite similar but size, color, habitat, geography, and the calendar can all help make identification easier.

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