By Bryan Stevens
As spring migration wanes, it’s a good time to reflect on what birds this seasonal phenomenon brought within viewing distance. In recent weeks I have seen grosbeaks, warblers, vireos, orioles, flycatchers, hummingbirds and more. Another family of migrating birds doesn’t attract quite as much attention from backyard birders, probably due to the fact that shorebirds are not usually considered birds likely to drop by a yard for a brief visit.
Throughout April and May I saw a few different shorebirds, most of them belonging to a group of birds labeled as sandpipers. The most common was the spotted sandpiper. This robin-sized bird belongs to the genus, Actitis, which consists of only one other species, the common sandpiper of Europe and Asia. The genus name originates with an ancient Greek term for “coast dweller,” which is an apt name for this shore-loving bird.
During their breeding season, spotted sandpipers sport dark spots against a bright white breast, a bright orange bill and a dark brown back. This distinctive pattern makes a springtime spotted sandpiper one of the most easily recognized members of a family that can cause some real challenges when it comes to identification. During the winter season, spotted sandpipers lose their spots and attain a dingy grayish-brown and white plumage. In their winter appearance, they are definitely not as easy to contrast from other shorebirds.
This sandpiper is also known for its unique teetering, tail-bobbing gait as it walks along a pond’s edge or a muddy stream bank. The similar solitary sandpiper has a less pronounced teeter-totter stance as it walks and forages.
The spotted sandpiper belongs to a group of related birds known collectively as shorebirds or, in a somewhat more whimsical context, “wind birds.” They are known as “wind birds” for the propensity of many members of this extended family to stage long-distance migrations; some species fly through Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina each spring and fall as they migrate to and from distant nesting grounds. This varied family of birds ranges in size from sparrow-sized sandpipers to larger species such as American avocet and Hudsonian godwit.
While Virginia and North Carolina are not landlocked like Tennessee, shorebird sightings are still infrequent enough that they cause some excitement among birders in the region. This spring didn’t seem to produce sightings of too many surprise shorebird migrants. Some of the better reported observations included species like greater yellowlegs and white-rumped sandpiper. I observed only a few of the more common species; other than the aforementioned spotted sandpiper, I also saw several solitary sandpipers during late April and early May. I saw most of these sandpipers around the pond at Erwin Fishery Park.
The solitary sandpiper is, in many ways, a bird of contradictions. For instance, despite this bird’s common name, they do travel in flocks on occasion. During migration, it’s just as likely to see three or four of these birds traipsing around the muddy edges of a pond as it is to observe a single individual. Unlike many sandpipers, they do not build a nest on the ground. Instead, the solitary sandpiper seeks out the old nests of songbirds, such as thrushes, in the branches of trees. This probably adds to the security of the nest, but poses a challenge once the young hatch. Young shorebirds are precocial in that they are relatively mature and mobile from the moment of their hatching. The parents usually must do some coaxing to get the young to leap from their nest in shrubs and trees.
Some of the other sandpipers found around the world include the spoon-billed sandpiper, sharp-tailed sandpiper, broad-billed sandpiper and Baird’s sandpiper. The latter’s name pays tribute to Spencer Fullerton Baird, a 19th-century naturalist and assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Baird had other birds named for him, as well as several species of fish, a whale, a crab, a snake and a tapir.
While shorebirds are often intimidating to new birdwatchers, they don’t have to be. Go to any beach along any coast, especially during the height of spring and fall migration, and you’re likely to see perhaps a dozen or more species of shorebirds. Several of the species encountered are likely to be numbered among the sandpipers.
For a few of these birds, however, it’s not necessary to travel as far as the coast to see them. A visit to a river’s bank, a pond’s edge or a lake shore is sufficient to yield looks at such migrating shorebirds as pectoral sandpiper, lesser yellowlegs and least sandpiper, as well as the solitary sandpiper and spotted sandpiper. For these latter two species, they’re not really fussy. A spacious lawn with a flooded area is enough to attract one or two of these birds. I saw my first spotted sandpiper bobbing around the edges of a temporary puddle after a heavy spring rainstorm. Sometimes those April showers produce more than flowers. They also yield some interesting looks at migrating sandpipers.