Spotting the Elusive Spotted Sandpiper -August 2018

by: Virginia Andrews

It could be a tongue-twister, stepping out for a spot of Spotted Sandpiper spotting. And it can sometimes be a challenge, as Spotted Sandpipers often shed some or all of their spotted plumage on migration.

So, spotting a Spotted Sandpiper without the spots takes a bit of – spotting. Nonetheless, it can be a rewarding entry to the world of shorebirds.

Some birders give up on shorebirds because they think they are just too hard to identify. The light on a summer day can be harsh and flat. Shorebirds have surprisingly good camouflage, being a mix of browns and whites, just like the sandy flats and reflections off the water where they spend their days.

The patterns of streaks and spots can be ambiguous, particularly in young birds. It is true that a telescope really makes the whole enterprise much more enjoyable. But even without much magnification, there are things to look for. The size and shape of the bill and head, and leg color, are good initial guides to identification.

But there is an easy trick to separating Spotties from all the other shorebirds that have brownish-grayish backs and grayish-whitish bellies: their behavior. Even to the naked eye, the Spotted Sandpiper in all plumages has a very distinctive walk.

A rather chubby, horizontally-angled bird with pale, fleshy-yellowish legs, it struts along a pond edge in a sort of rocking sashay. As it walks, energetically bobbing its tail, it weaves from side to side. This gave it a series of common nicknames, such as “Tip-Tail,” “Teeter-Bob,” “Twitchet” and “Teeter-peep.” In some parts of the country it’s called a “Dip-Ass.”

Another name comes from its low, slightly plaintive, twonote call: “Peet-Weet” or “Pee-Weet.” When you know what to look for, separating out a Spotted Sandpiper from any other shore-hugging bird is much easier. Although once known as the Spotted Tattler it shows its spots only during or close to the breeding season.

Spotted Sandpipers are interesting for their difference from the usual shorebird breeding protocol. For years it was thought that they were like many others: males were assumed to be the larger of the pair, with strongly-defined spots. Males supposedly picked a breeding territory and aggressively defended the nest. They were assumed to be the ones having, shall we say, a carefree attitude to mate-and-nest fidelity.

The larger individuals were observed to have as many as five different nests with different mates. And they sometimes left once the eggs were laid, leaving the supposed mom to raise the children. But, not true. It turned out that the female was larger,

played around and took off early, leaving housekeeping to the male.

Females time migration to arrive first on the breeding ground. Mom picks a site, defends it and chooses a mate. Making nest scrapes is part of courtship. Eventually the female picks one to lay her eggs. The nest itself is hardly more than a depression in the ground lined with whatever is in reach: small sticks and dry grasses. Once eggs are laid, dad incubates and takes care of the young when they hatch. Meanwhile, mom may have another nest or two, or even three. But some pairs are monogamous, with females participating in rearing the young.

Breeding across North America from Alaska to Newfoundland, they nest coast to coast across most of the northern threequarters of the United States. They make use of a wide variety of habitats close to fresh water. Near rivers, creeks or streams, lakes or ponds – even a sewage pond will do – or coastal estuaries, they are equally at home.

Along with their tolerance of different habitats, they are also generalists when it comes to food. They prefer insects, going after flies and fly larvae, grasshoppers and crickets. But they also eat small crustaceans, aquatic worms, even tiny minnows. They forage along muddy verges, sandy areas or mats of algae along pond edges. Poke, probe and stitch, or thrust and jab, they are active, energetic feeders, even snatching flies right out of the air.

Given such wide distribution and the fact that one needn’t travel to the Arctic or Subarctic to see them, Spotted Sandpiper nests ought to be easier to find. But their habits are more solitary than some other species. Rather than congregating in a colony with a lot of close neighbors, they place their nests in well-hidden nooks away from others. If disturbed by a passing person, dog or other potential hazard, one of the parents will give what ornithologists call a distraction display, flying off to draw the predator away from the nest.

Despite their widespread range, Spotted Sandpipers were seldom seen in summer on Nantucket during the 20th century. In 1948, Griscom and Folger wrote, “The disappearance of this Sandpiper from coastal Massachusetts as a very common breeder is inexplicable and has never previously been brought out.”

But shorebird hunting was big business in the late 19th century, with local guides taking out shooting parties that formed an important part of the economy. The moors, then very sparsely vegetated, were often burned to make the terrain more attractive to the birds and easier for the hunters. It was a common practice to set off a head fire at Milestone Road and let it burn to the south-shore beach. There were no houses in the way, and a team of horses and a plow were all that was needed to make a fire break. Perhaps the reduction of cover made the terrain as unattractive to nesting Spotties as the rain of lead.

Because they are early migrants, July sightings don’t necessarily denote breeding. It was thought likely, however, that a pair present from July 9 to Sept. 30, 1945 were making a nesting attempt. In the 1970s a pair was confirmed on Tuckernuck. But despite all efforts they could not be caught nesting on Nantucket. Twenty-five years later a second “Breeding Bird Atlas” again failed to find confirmation of nesting, despite regular efforts from multiple observers.

So, it was with great excitement that ornithologists greeted a report of an adult Spotted Sandpiper feeding a chick on the shore of Long Pond on June 27, 2017. This was a first.

The downy young are precocial, able to get about almost as soon as they chip their way out of their shells. In half an hour they can teeter, within a day they walk, preen and stretch their tiny wings. In two days they begin to catch their own food.

Young chicks have a hard time foraging in dense vegetation, where they take cover, coming out into the open to feed. One or both parents keep watchful eyes out for tasty bits of food or for dangerous predators.

Females depart first on migration. Males tend their chicks for about four weeks, and the juveniles leave the home turf last. They have a long way to go. Rainforest or cloud forest, they spread out across Central or South America, spending the winter as far south as Argentina or Peru.

But with a happy outcome of nesting they are more likely to return to the sites where young hatched successfully. So, we have some hope that Nantucket birders will continue to enjoy these pert little shorebirds in years to come. ///

Virginia Andrews writes the weekly “Island Bird Sightings” column for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, and is a regular writer for Nantucket Today.

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