Spotted Sandpipers play in the Piney Woods

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correpondent

Anyone who finds himself around the water's edge in our region is sure to encounter the dapper Spotted Sandpiper sooner or later. These birds can be found in such habitat year round but they are most numerous in spring and fall migrations. You are just as likely to find Spotted Sandpipers along the edges of bayous, streams and rivers as along reservoir, pond and lake shores.

Like many bird species, breeding plumage of Spotted Sandpipers differs from non-breeding plumage. Medium-sized , stocky, round breasted birds, these sandpipers have short necks and relatively short legs. Breeding birds have dark brown back and the bright white breasts are covered with brown spots. Bills and legs are orange-yellow. Non-breeding birds, however, have grayish brown backs and plain, un-spotted white breasts. Bills are pale yellow. Regardless of season, all birds have a white eyebrow called a supercilium.

Spotted Sandpipers have a teetering gait and constantly bob their tails up and down. They walk quickly, crouching low and dart toward prey. Birds teeter faster when they are nervous but stop teetering altogether when alarmed.

Chicks teeter almost as soon as they hatch. The reason for teetering is not known but this habit accounts for a number of nicknames including: teeter-peep, teeter-bob, jerk or peck bird, teeter snipe, and tip tail.

When Spotted Sandpipers fly, they typically have quick snappy, stuttering wing beats followed by intermittent glides with wings below a horizontal plain. In flight, one often hears clear, high pitched notes - peet or peet-weet.

Spotted Sandpipers are often solitary. One rarely sees more than two or three birds together.

However, during migration, as many as 20 birds, sometimes more, can be found feeding on food rich reservoir spillways with fast flowing but shallow water.

Although Spotted Sandpipers can breed over a huge region of North America, they apparently do not breed along the northern Gulf of Mexico and the associated piney woods above the gulf.

No one has yet documented breeding in the area.

Breeding in Spotted Sandpipers differs from that in most bird species. Females practice polyandry. That is, females assume male behavior and males assume female behavior. Female Spotted Sandpipers establish nesting territories and initiate courtship behavior. They perform swooping flights with wings held open while "singing" a wheet wheet song. On the ground they perform a strutting display to attract the males.

A female may have up to four male mates within her territory. If a male shows no interest in her, he will be driven away. Nests are simple scrapes lined with dry grass and twigs. They are typically located beneath broad leafed plants. In areas where there are potential nest predators, the nests may be located in dense foliage. Each male incubates the eggs and looks after the hatchlings. The hatchlings are not fed by the parent male. Rather, they are led about to areas with suitable insects, small crustaceans, and other invertebrate prey and feed themselves.

Adult Spotted Sandpipers have a diverse diet including insects , earthworms, crabs, crawfish, small snails and clams, small fish and occasionally bits of dead fish. Feeding behavior is diverse. Small items may be picked from the surface of the ground or water; insects may be caught flying by; and prey may be plucked from shallow water. Spotted Sandpipers may crouch and slowly stalk insects and crabs, dashing forward to catch a meal.