Birds of eternal summer
By Susan Campbell
The group of birds that more often than not makes most birdwatchers cringe is sandpipers. Small, often fast-moving birds with longish legs and streaky, drab plumage, they’re definitely tricky to differentiate, especially without a good bit of patience. But once you begin to appreciate the subtle differences in appearance and behavior as well as their habitat preferences, teasing them apart gets a bit easier. Add to that an understanding of the timing of their appearance along our coast and you just might be able to identify a hefty percentage of these fascinating feathered creatures.
One in particular that makes an appearance both spring and fall in North Carolina is the pectoral sandpiper. Much of this bird’s feathering is made up of many shades of brown: striped, scalloped and streaked, depending on how you are looking at it. The belly, however, is pure white, and the legs a dull yellow.
A close look at these handsome birds reveals a finely streaked head, neck and chest with heavier dark markings below. The back and wing feathers have black centers with brown margins. The brown varies from a tan color to deep chestnut. Immature birds have more of the chestnut edging than do their parents. Even the bill, which is relatively long, is tan at the base and becomes almost black toward the tip. But that clear demarcation between the dark lines on the breast with the white ventral area is characteristic of this species and easy to spot, even at some distance.
These birds get their name from the peculiar vocalizing of the adult males during courtship. They actually produce a bellowing from a sac in their throat as they fly over potential mates in the open, wet grassy tundra of northwestern Canada and Alaska. The hooting sound that is produced during this display is distinctive and most unusual for such a small bird. The male will proceed to follow a prospective mate on foot, vigorously bobbing his head, extending his wings skyward at the grand finale.
Not only do pectoral sandpipers seek out grassy areas for nesting, but they also do a good bit of foraging in this kind of habitat as well. They can be considered “grasspipers” more so than sandpipers. These birds eat an inordinate number of insects during the year; however, they also take crustaceans and other invertebrates found in the moist margins of wetlands of all kinds. These birds are visual predators but will readily probe mud and sand for food items.
Pectorals are birds of eternal summer, leaving their breeding grounds in the high Arctic in July to head for a wintering destination south of the Equator. They gradually will be making their way through the eastern and central United States as they travel down into South America. These little birds use powered flight, often flying hundreds of miles at a stretch on their journey. Much of that distance is covered at night, when the air is cooler, and stars guide them along the way. Also the bird hawks, fierce visual predators, are roosting, so are not much of a threat as they wing their way overhead, hurrying southward. But when they stop to rest and refuel, these birds can be found singly or in small groups during the day. Should you happen upon a flock of sandpipers in the weeks ahead, hopefully you will be close enough to pick out at least one pectoral in the mix — before fall migration has passed.
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