Bird Lore: Wandering Tattler

The Wandering Tattler is an uncommon shorebird due to a small global population, remote breeding grounds and a geographically expansive wintering range (Pacific Ocean islands). This shorebird breeds in the arctic and passes along the West Coast during migration. Of the six Edmonds sightings of this species since 1995, they have all been in the marina or on the marina’s two breakwaters, usually the south one where they can be difficult to see. Sighting records are from 1995, 1996, 2017, 2020 and August-September 2023.

Tattlers eat insects and other invertebrates in both freshwater and saltwater environments. When in rocky areas they walk along haltingly to search the water and rock crevices for prey. When on mud or sand they will flip over algae and leaves and probe for hidden prey. When hunting small crabs on beaches they will run back and forth with the waves, as Sanderlings do. In streams and ponds, they will wade deeply into the water and submerge their heads in search of prey. On their breeding grounds, tattlers will leap into the air to catch flying insects. They pick other insects off of rocks, vegetation, and ice. Some insects are captured at the water’s edge. Food sources include a wide variety of flies, beetles, wasps, worms, mollusks, shrimps, and small crabs. Tattlers will also occasionally eat plants such as algae, coconuts, and moss. This short video shows a tattler foraging on a Kaua’i shoreline.

As do other shorebirds, tattlers perform flight displays after arriving on their breeding grounds. They are some of the most elaborate flight displays among shorebirds. The displays include rising up on trembling wings, singing while flying, and a number of other maneuvers such as gliding, diving, hovering, a slow-flapping display, and a twisting dive called a crazy flight. It is not known whether the display flights are to claim a territory or just attract a mate. Some pairs reunite for successive nesting seasons.

The nest is a depression in the ground about 5 inches across with a smaller interior cup that is about 2 inches deep. The nest is lined with twigs and leaves. It is set in the ground among pebbles, scree or boulders, often near mountain streams near tundra. There are usually four eggs incubated by both adults for a period thought to be 23-25 days. The chicks hatch in a downy state but are able to move around and feed themselves. They leave the nest about two days after hatching and stay with both adults. The young take their first flights about 18 days later. The adult female is usually the first to leave the breeding grounds while the male continues to be with the young.

“Wandering” refers to the widespread occurrence of this species on islands across the Pacific Ocean. “Tattler” refers to its voice, which it uses to alert other birds to a hunter’s presence. There does not appear to be any collective noun for this species, probably because it does not form large flocks. Single birds sometimes can be found foraging with Black Turnstones and Surfbirds, two species frequently seen on the Edmonds Marina breakwaters in fall and winter.

The estimated global population of the Wandering Tattler is only about 18,000. Partners in Flight is a network of 150 organizations in the Western Hemisphere that work for land conservation to protect avian populations. It has put this species on its Yellow Watch List because of habitat loss due to climate change. Increasing shrub growth in the Arctic will reduce the open tundra on which Wandering Tattlers nest. Because the species mostly winters on Pacific islands, sea level rise is also concern.

You can hear the call of an adult male Wandering Tattler here:

— 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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