Sandpiper are hard to spot

By Jay Huner
Journal Correspondent

• Louisiana Ecrivisse, Boyce LA

Small sandpipers are novice birders' worst nightmares. How do you tell these diminutive brown and white, fast moving birds apart? Fortunately, the relatively common Least Sandpiper is so small that, by size alone, compared to other sandpipers it's almost easy to separate from the others.

Called "peeps", no not the little colorful marshmallow Easter chick-shaped treats, the smaller sandpipers apparently derive this name from the "peep-like" sounds that they commonly make. Size ranges from the Least Sandpiper's one ounce to a pound or more for Long-billed Curlews (see past PWJ report).

Least Sandpipers can be found in our region in every month in the year. They are most common during spring breeding migration to the Far North and fall migration of breeders and hatch-year birds returning to wintering areas in our region or farther south to Latin American.

Least Sandpipers are brownish above and whitish below. In breeding plumage, there are reddish brown highlights. Unlike the other slightly larger peeps, they have a much more prominent brownish chest band AND yellowish green legs. So, if you have a tiny, sparrow-sized sandpiper with yellowish green legs, you have found a Least Sandpiper. The only "issue" is that the legs are sometimes covered with mud obscuring the distinctive color.

In flight, the flocking behavior of peeps is impressive. When frightened, the flock of tiny, long, narrow-winged birds rises immediately in a compact mass. There is a leader and the flock, a few or many, moves in unison with the leader with seemingly only factions of inches between each bird.

This flocking behavior is critical to survival. Predators, especially hawks and falcons, see only a mass of birds, not individuals. It is especially dangerous for a raptor to crash into the mass as it could easily break a wing, effectively ending its life. So, the raptors try to single out individual birds that can be safely "harvested".

So, what do Least Sandpipers eat? They eat tiny invertebrates including crustaceans, insects, spiders, and worms and some seeds. You'll play heck seeing what they're eating but you can see them pecking away as they move about mucky areas, sandy shores and very shallow water. When feeding around water, they feed in the shallowest areas because their legs are so short.

Ever notice that very light objects "float" on the water's surface supported by surface tension? When feeding in damp mud, Least Sandpipers use the surface tension of the water to transport prey quickly from their bill tips to their mouths.

Despite their small size, Least Sandpipers can fly long distances. In fact, the eastern populations likely fly nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and New England to northeastern South America. That's a distance of 1,800 to 2,200 miles.

Least Sandpipers may spend a long time in our piney woods area but they nest in northern Canada and Alaska. The males "dance" about in the air above the ground to attract a mate. They nest in heavy brush around ponds in forested areas. The hatchlings leave the nest soon after hatching and feed themselves guided about by their fathers. The parents fly south well ahead of the fledglings in mid-summer. The young birds follow a few weeks later.

Despite their small size, Least Sandpipers were once hunted for food, especially by market hunters. But, they are fully protected now and abundant enough that you are sure to find them if you seek them out.