Bird Lore: Baird’s Sandpiper

When shorebirds come north in spring, they separate along three distinct North American flyways. The adult birds follow their expected paths. All bets are off when shorebirds head back south after breeding. Young birds do not always know where to go so they can be found wandering where they are not expected to be. The possibility of a bird rare to a flyway thrills birders during fall migration. August and September can be productive months for shorebird rarities.

The Baird’s Sandpiper is a bird of what is called the Central Flyway, a flight path that extends through the Great Plains of North America. The Edmonds marsh, a critical stopover for shorebirds migrating through the Inland Marine Waters, usually hosts a few young Baird’s Sandpipers during southbound migration. August is a prime month to look for this sandpiper in the marsh.

The Baird’s has a black bill, black legs, and is a bit larger than the more common Least and Western Sandpipers. One of its distinctive features is its long wings. When the wings are folded back, they extend beyond the tip of the tail. Birders look for this feature with binoculars or scopes to be certain of the identification.

When migrating, the Baird’s Sandpiper often prefers drier or more open habitats than other small sandpipers. Look for it resting or foraging on dry and sandy shores, nearby grassy areas, open fields, mudflats, and flooded fields. Its diet is not well known but it probably eats mostly insects. It will also take some amphipods and crustaceans. It forages by picking prey from the surface instead of probing into the subsurface with its bill. It moves about actively looking for insects and other prey.

Breeding takes place on the Arctic’s dry upland tundra. A male flies high over breeding habitat, its flight slow and hovering with wings fluttering. At the same time it vocalizes with a trilled song. Males may cluster fairly close together at the beginning of the breeding season in an effort to attract females to the area. Once a pair forms, it selects a nest site on the ground, sometimes hidden under a clump of grass. The nest is nothing more than a shallow scrape lined with lichens, grass, and dry leaves. There are usually four eggs, incubated by both adults for about three weeks. Downy young leave the nest soon after hatching. They are tended by the adults for a short period of time.

Once the fledglings develop their back feathers that are capable of shedding rain or snow, they no longer require brooding from their parents. At this point the adults leave the young birds and begin their southbound migration. The female often departs first. About a month later the young sandpipers begin their first migration, some ending up along both the East and West Coasts. This sandpiper has a long but rapid migration. Within about five weeks it will journey from its high arctic breeding grounds to its wintering grounds in northern South America. Some of these birds will continue on to Tierra del Fuego for a journey of more than 9,000 miles.

The Baird’s Sandpiper is named for Spencer Fullerton Baird who was Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for many years in the nineteenth century. There are a number of collective nouns for any group of sandpipers, including a bind, contradiction, fling, hill, and time-step.

For conservation purposes, the Baird’s Sandpiper is a species of low concern. The global population is thought to number about 300,000. There is no evidence of significant population trends. Its breeding and wintering grounds appear to be secure. As with other migrating shorebirds, it is dependent upon fields, shorelines, and wetlands where it can rest and forage undisturbed.

You can hear song and other vocalizations of the Baird’s Sandpiper on the breeding grounds at this link:

By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell 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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