Bird Lore: Least Sandpiper

Photo by LeRoy VanHee
Photo by LeRoy VanHee

The Least Sandpiper, the size of a sparrow, is the smallest shorebird in North America. It breeds across the sub-Arctic latitudes from Alaska to Newfoundland. It migrates along both coasts of North America as well as on inland flyways. Some overwinter in the southern U.S. and Gulf Coast. Others continue on to northern South America. On our Pacific Coast, Least and Western Sandpipers are the most common shorebirds.

Sometimes found on Edmonds beaches, as shown in LeRoy’s photo, the Least Sandpiper is more typically found in the Edmonds marsh during spring and fall migration. It favors mudflats, the muddy edges of grassy marshes, ponds, and narrow tidal creeks. It is often distinguished from the Western Sandpiper by the color of its legs, which is yellow. The legs can be well seen when this shorebird is on a sand or cobble beach, but when it is foraging or resting in marsh mud the yellow frequently is covered by brown mud.

Shorebirds come in different sizes, with shorter or longer legs and shorter or longer bills. Each species fills a feeding niche. They can sometimes be identified by their foraging habits. The Least Sandpiper has short legs and a short bill. When foraging it moves slowly and picks up food from the surface although it can probe into mud depending on available food sources.

The Least Sandpiper nests on tundra and northern bogs. The nest is nothing more than a shallow depression lined with moss, grass, and leaves. Both parents incubate the four eggs that are typically laid. The young leave the nest soon after hatching and both parents tend to them at first. The female usually departs on southbound migration before the male, who stays behind with the young until they are able to fly.

In spring migration, the Least Sandpiper begins to move through the Edmonds marsh in mid-April. Fall migration begins in late June and continues into September. How does fall migration begin in June? Because bird seasons are not on the human calendar. The first southbound sandpipers are probably subadults or adults that were not successful breeders.

The flight call of the Least Sandpiper can be heard here:

– By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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