Wild Ideas: A jaunty little bird makes my week  

Last week, as I was getting increasingly frustrated in trying to take bird photos, a jaunty little bird gave me encouragement.

I was walking around one of the lower ponds where I live recently when I noticed the bird, about 7 inches long, exploring the shallows on the far side. I only had my 90mm macro (close-up) lens with me, to take photos of poison ivy blooming, so figured the prospects of getting close enough to take good shots were not good. Still, I followed it slowly as it worked the shallows of the pond for food, while it kept the distance between us to just a few yards.

Thinking I wasn’t going to be able to close the distance between us, I stopped to let the bird go on about its business. Then an interesting thing happened: it turned back toward me, continuing to poke around in the water me, occasionally just stopping briefly and staring at me. I clicked away as my prospects for getting decent photos brightened.

Sorting out what are considered “medium-sized” shorebirds (in the order Charadriiformes), such as the one at the pond, can be a real trial even for birding experts, and I’m not one. After getting what I thought would be sufficient shots to have at least one work out, I headed back home to try to identify the bird.

I took out my favorite print field guide, “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America,” to see more shorebirds quickly side by side. I checked his illustrations against what I remembered and what I saw in my photos, which had turned out better than I expected, thanks to my bold little friend (see photo below, and more in a slideshow below.

I was surprised to find a match quickly from the distinctive markings Sibley points out: white eyebrow, dark line running through the eye, orange bill, bold spots on the undersides and drab, pale-orange legs. Together, they fit the spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia), the spots on its chest indicating it was in full breeding plumage. It is the only North American member of its genus, Actitis, and only one other species, the common sandpiper (A. hypoleucos), which is native to Eurasia, share the genus.

My having found the bird inland rather than along the shore had helped identify it, as did the bird’s movement, distinct from other shorebirds I’d encountered. Most stride along, legs moving rapidly back and forth while the rest of them stays fairly level. The bird at the pond, on the other hand, continually bobbed its head and tail up and down.

As I discovered from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website All About Birds, I’m not the only one to have an easy time identifying this species. As the website points out, the spotted sandpiper “makes a great ambassador for the notoriously difficult-to-identify shorebirds” because, although they are considered uncommon, “they occur all across North America, they are distinctive in both looks and actions and they’re handsome.”

I stopped patting myself on the back for making the ID so quickly and, wanting to read more about this bird’s behavior, I turned to Edward Howe Forbush and John Bichard May’s “A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America.” I found that the bird has been praised for its demeanor for centuries, with words such as “dapper” and “cheery” often applied to it. Its bobbing has earned the spotted sandpiper a variety of other common names, including “jerk or perk bird,” “teeter-bob,” “teeter-peep,” “teeter-snipe,” “tip-tail,” “tip-up” and “twitchet.”

In his 1877 book, “Birds of the North-west,” Elliott Coues describes this sandpiper’s bobbing as “more conspicuous in the upward than the downward part of the performance; as if the tail were spring-hinged, in constant danger of flying up, and needing constant presence of mind to keep it down.” William Leon Dawson, in his 1923 book “The Birds of California,” adds that “absurd” as the bobbing is in the adults, it’s even more laughable “when a toddling youngster, bristling with pin-feathers, discovers the same uncontrollable ambition in his rear parts, and says How-do-you-do backward, with imperturbable gravity.”

Another “intriguing” behavior of the spotted sandpiper, as All About Birds describes it, is that they are usually polyandrous, with females each taking up to four males as mates. Each male raises a clutch of eggs the female produces, with some of the eggs in a clutch often having been fertilized by other males. Although the males have 10 times the testosterone of females overall, during the breeding season, females can experience a sevenfold increase in their testosterone levels, which in part may explain why females are more aggressive than the males and conduct the strutting courtship displays.

The Cornell Lab site neatly sums up why these sandpipers are stars in the North American avian pantheon: “With their richly spotted breeding plumage, teetering gait, stuttering wingbeats, and showy courtship dances, this bird is among the most notable and memorable shorebirds in North America.”

© 2019 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 344 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

2 Comments

  1. I am the guy that you met on the Limberlost Trail on May 22. Your nature column looks great. I saved the link and I will continue to follow it. All my visits to Shenandoah NP have been ot the Skyline Drive Central District which I absolutely love.

    During this trip my first trail walk was on Monday, early afternoon and I walked just 150 feet and saw a bear to my left (between trails). I was going to share a photo of him (or her), that you could gladly use, but I don’t see an easy way to to do.

    I live near Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania and they doing a lot for environmental education which I believe you will find interesting. Check it out when you get a chance.

    hawkmountain.org

    best wishes, Kerry Grim

    • Thanks, Kerry. My friend and I also enjoyed talking with you. Always good to meet another nature enthusiast. I’ll check the website. You can email me directly via the address I use for the column, wildideas.va@gmail.com. Always up for seeing bear photos. My dog and I had a bear encounter here at home a few days ago that was not a lot of fun, but no injuries on either side.

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