Dear Bird Folks,
I’ve recently moved to Cape Cod and have been faithfully reading your weekly column. While I’ve enjoyed learning about hummingbirds and bluebirds, I would really like to know more about the beach birds. Could you tell me something about the sandpipers I see on my walk every morning?
– Josh, Osterville, MA
Welcome to Cape Cod. I don’t know anything about you or where you are from, but if you read this column “faithfully,” you are obviously a very smart person. But I’m sorry you live in Osterville. I’ve heard things are kind of tough there. A friend of mine lives in Osterville and he only has a three-car garage. I don’t even know how he is able to get by. Talk about having the pioneer spirit.
Writing about sandpipers is something I’ve tried to avoid. They are just too confusing. Mention hummingbirds and bluebirds and everyone knows what birds you are talking about. But if you speak about sandpipers we all will have different images dancing in our heads. Customers regularly ask me if we have a carving of a sandpiper, to which I reply, “Yes.” But when I show them the sandpiper we carry their faces drop. They say, “That’s not a sandpiper.” I retort, “Yes, it is,” and they respond, “No, it isn’t,” and the conversation goes back and forth like that for the next half-hour. While I understand that people are wise to question anything I say, the real problem here is with the birds. Sandpipers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are small and look nearly identical, while others are large birds and not similar in any way. And to confound things even more, many of the sandpipers don’t even have the word “sandpiper” in their name. Dunlins, curlews, and knots are all in the sandpiper family, and so are surfbirds and tattlers…whatever they are. Since you didn’t specify which sandpipers you wanted to know about, I’m going choose one for you, and I choose Least Sandpipers. They are cute, common and have the word sandpiper as part of their name. Can’t ask for more than that.
As their first name implies, Least Sandpipers are very small. In fact, they have the distinction of being the world’s smallest sandpiper. Only six inches long, mostly brown, with a streaked chest and white bellies, they basically look like long-legged sparrows, with stretched-out beaks. Least Sandpipers are one of Cape Cod’s birds of summer. They begin arriving here in early July, using the Cape as a rest stop on their “fall” migration. That’s right, while we are kicking off the start of summer with fireworks and cookouts, these little birds have already finished nesting in northern Canada and are headed south for the winter. They arrive here hungry and exhausted, right in the midst of all the summer commotion. Desperate to rest and refuel, the birds somehow must find the few mudflats that aren’t crowded with clammers, dog walkers and the ever-annoying bird watchers. Once the birds have rested and fattened up a bit, they will continue on. It is thought that many Least Sandpipers will fly directly from Cape Cod, nonstop to South America. Can you imagine? These tiny birds are somehow able to fly 2,000 miles – over the open ocean all the way to South America without ever stopping again to rest and without being served a complementary bag of peanuts. That amazes me. Least Sandpipers are only the size of House Finches and they can fly all that way without food. My House Finches can barely last five minutes without having to muscle their way back onto my feeder.
Before you run down to the beach to look for some Least Sandpipers, Josh, you need to know a few things. Earlier I mentioned that Least Sandpipers look like long-legged sparrows. Well, like sparrows, these sandpipers can easily be confused with their similar-looking cousins. To give you a fighting chance at sorting out which birds you see on your beach, here are a few clues. If you are a leg man, Josh, you should have no trouble remembering to first check out their legs. Most small sandpipers tend to have black legs, but leasties have greenish/yellow legs, looking like birds with a touch of jaundice. Next listen for their call. Least Sandpipers give a harsh, high-pitched “creep, creep” call, which will help you separate them from other shorebirds. The last thing to look for is feeding location. When searching for food, other sandpipers are more inclined to wade through water, but Least Sandpipers are slightly hydrophobic. They’d rather hunt along the shore, in the wrack line and on the drier parts of the marsh. It’s important to note that Least Sandpipers tend to be found on mudflats, bay shores and marshes, and aren’t likely to be seen chasing the waves on ocean beaches. Those wave-chasing birds are Sanderlings, which are also small sandpipers. (See, I told you these birds are confusing.)
I hope you like living on Cape Cod, Josh. Just don’t be discouraged while you are trying to figure out the different sandpipers. Learning them will take time. Just keep an eye out for those yellow/greenish legs and you should be able to tell the Least Sandpipers from all the rest. Also, remember to listen for their creep call. They say it a lot. At least, I think they say it a lot. It’s quite possible they only say “creep” when they see me coming.