Quirky and hearty, the stout little rock-hoppers are right at home around bridges and jetties
By Susan Campbell
Sandpipers are, as a group, small birds that you would not think could endure the winter months. But some certainly can, such as sanderlings and black-bellied plovers that one can find on open beaches without much searching. And then there’s the purple sandpiper. These stout little rock- hoppers favor jetties and bridge abutments that experience frequent wash-over. The high-impact habitats develop significant algal growth with a rich assortment of invertebrates favored by these quirky individuals.
Purple sandpipers are dark, husky birds with short legs and necks. The grayish, speckled pattern of their plumage is good camouflage against the rocky areas they frequent year-round. A purple sheen is only visible during the non-breeding season and only at very close range. Their bills are relatively short, orange at the base and slightly downturned. Such a tool proves a very effective tool for picking a variety of insect larvae, crustaceans and more from aquatic vegetation as well as grabbing morsels out of nooks and crannies between rocks. Purple sandpipers can be all but invisible when standing still in intertidal areas. This is a helpful trick, since these open areas can be favored hunting grounds for peregrine falcons and other fast- moving avian predators.
During the summer, pairs breed in low tundra and on gravel beaches in the far northern reaches of Canada, as well as in northern Europe. Using simply the camouflage of their feathers and that of their mottled eggs to evade predation, adults may also employ distraction displays if approached by mammals or large birds. In what is referred to as the “rodent run” strategy, an adult will puff up, raise a wing, start running and emit loud squeaks in hopes of drawing the threat away from the nest or fledglings. Like all sandpipers, the young are covered with a thick layer of down and can run and even feed themselves within a few hours after hatching.
Unfortunately, the worldwide population of purple sandpipers is unknown. These little birds nest in very remote areas in the Arctic, and many migrate across the open ocean. Therefore, surveying them is very challenging. Canadian estimates have documented a sharp decline in the breeding population to our north. But here along the southeastern coast of the state, you can find congregations of wintering birds well into February if you know how and where to look. The best places to scan are the Wrightsville Beach Jetty, Masonboro Inlet and the rockier beaches on Bald Head Island. However, be prepared by dressing in a couple of warm layers of outerwear, and go armed with good binoculars as well as a spotting scope if possible. Purple sandpipers are fairly shy, so move carefully. Otherwise they likely will see you before you see them and flush before you can get a good look. Nevertheless, the quest is a fun challenge for sure: an annual rite that I will be undertaking very soon. b
Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.