So You Think You Know Shorebirds?

Today’s post was written by Brian Zwiebel, an award-winning photographer and bird guide with Sabrewing Nature Tours. Brian is regularly sighted in the western Ohio Lake Marsh region.

You’ve been doing this birding thing for a while now so you know your shorebirds quite well, right? Yellowlegs? No problem, you can tell them apart in a second. Solitary Sandpiper? Check! Even the peeps don’t provide much of a challenge. In fact, your mad ID skills are so honed it only takes a few minutes to scan through dozens or even hundreds of birds. Now what?

Picture yourself at your favorite shore-birding hot spot. Without a doubt most readers have imagined themselves at a beach or mudflat in late summer. The weather is nice so maybe you’ve decide to hang out for a while to see if anything new drops in. While you wait patiently maybe you’ve even started to really observe the birds versus simply putting a name to each. You’ve seen them eat and bathe and noted some species have a preference for different water depths or maybe even no water at all. You might not realize it, but you’ve started to hone in on behavior.

In migration the birds are mostly focused on feeding to rebuild their energy reserves for the next leg of their journey. You might get to observe the birds in flight or taking a bath and once in a while they might even give off an alarm call. Interesting stuff, for sure, but all of this pales in comparison to the utterly amazing behaviors one can witness on the breeding grounds of the high arctic tundra. Here the normally quiet and unobtrusive shorebirds pull out all the stops as the males attempt to attract a mate during the all too brief high arctic summer. The females of some species also have a trick or two up their sleeve.

I would like to encourage everyone, whether they are blessed with the opportunity to travel to far-off destinations or are simply scoping their local patch for something new, to take some extra time to really observe what the birds are doing. Get to know more about them than just their name based on a field mark or two. Get to know who they really are. After all – like people, birds are more than just skin deep!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper- by Brian L. Zwiebel at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Buff-breasted Sandpiper- by Brian L. Zwiebel at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Buff-breasted Sandpiper displaying

Many birders are aware that Buff-breasted Sandpipers engage in a leking behavior more commonly associated with our grouse and prairie chickens. In fact, reading of this behavior was one of the greatest motivations for me when I decided to visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As part of this unique display the males may raise one wing, then the other and sometimes both wings at once. The action sometimes prompts a female to move in to inspect the exposed under wings, a very comical situation. Some fortunate observers have also witnessed the wing displays in spring and fall migration.

Semi-palmated Sandpiper hover display

Semi-palmated Sandpiper hover display flight by Brian L. Zwiebel

The diminutive Semipalmated Sandpiper can be easy to overlook when scanning a flock of migrant shorebirds on a distant mudflat. Breeding birds in full display are much easier to spot. They engage in raised wing displays and hover flights as part of their annual ritual to attract a mate. The flight display includes calling, hovering and gliding.

Baird's Sandpiper raised-wing display

The long-winged Baird’s Sandpiper migrates further than most of the other “peep” sandpipers. Here it is seen doing a wing up display on an area of preferred dry, gravely habitat which is actually the edge of a baseball diamond right in the town of Barrow, AK.

White-rumped Sandpiper wing-up display

White-rumped Sandpiper, back view

Many other species of shorebirds engage in raised wing behaviors on the breeding grounds as well. Through my own observations I believe these displays are to some degree used to maintain visual contact between a mated pair, as wind noise can make it difficult if not impossible to hear a simple call note. In this image the namesake white rump of the White-rumped Sandpiper is easily seen.

Pectoral Sandpiper “Lion’s Mane” Brian L. Zwiebel

Male Pectoral Sandpipers regularly engage in some of the most dramatic breeding displays of any shorebirds. The males can puff up their chest until their feathers look like the mane of a lion. They do wing raised displays like some of the other species described above. In addition they have what I consider the most interesting of all flight displays in their repertoire. The birds follow a similar flight path repeatedly displaying to an onlooking female. This predictable and repetitive action can result in opportunities to capture some amazing photographic images of the flight display. If that were not enough they also have probably the most interesting call of any of the shorebirds, sounding a bit like a strange sound effect for a space ship taking off in some sci-fi movie.

Pectoral Sandpiper Barrel Chested Flight Display by Brian L. Zwiebel

This puffed up, barrel chested Pectoral Sandpiper looks all the world like a Saturday night bar room brawler, ready to take on all challengers.

Pectoral Sandpiper “Spare Tire” Display  by Brian L. Zwiebel

This Pectoral Sandpiper has obviously reached middle age. His Dunlap spare tire showed up near the end of one of his display flights!

Dunlin by Brian L. Zwiebel- male engaged in raised wing display

Dunlin by Brian L. Zwiebel- male raised wing display moments before copulation

Note how well the back and wing plumage of this male Dunlin match the dried willow leaves in the foreground of this image. A crouching Dunlin is provided excellent camouflage against aerial predators. Though not commonly known for visual breeding displays, I have observed Dunlin doing raised wing displays on several occasions. On one such occasion I approached this Dunlin in exquisite breeding plumage. Suddenly he raised one wing and began calling repeatedly. The bird then marched, wing raised and still calling to a nearby depression where he joined his mate and promptly copulated for at least 30 seconds. A real stud in the bird world!

American Golden Plover Male Calling by Brian L. Zwiebel

Astute observers may have noted that migrant American Golden Plovers are just as likely to be seen on a dry agricultural field or a sod farm as a wet mudflat. The tendency to be found in higher, drier locales holds true on the breeding grounds as well. Here an immaculately plumed male chooses a slightly elevated tundra mound as his preferred “singing post”.

American Golden Plover nest by Brian L. Zwiebel

Shorebird nests are in and of themselves true works of art. Incredibly beautiful yet masterfully camouflaged against the tundra.

Red-necked Phalarope male spin feeding by Brian L. Zwiebel

Red and especially Red-necked Phalaropes are hyperactive feeders. They frequently spin like a top on the water at a high rate of speed. The process creates a whirlpool effect that aids in bringing small invertebrates to the surface where they are adeptly plucked by the spinning birds.

Copulating Red-necked Phalaropes by Brian Zwiebel

Here we see the less brightly plumaged male mounting the brightly colored female… wait a second, more brightly colored female? That’s right. In the phalarope family there is a role reversal from what is considered normal bird biology. The female lays the eggs but the male sits on the nest and later tends to the young. The female in the mean time washes her lobed toes of all chick rearing responsibilities and in some years will find an additional male to mate with, again leaving him in complete charge of rearing the young. She in turn migrates south earlier than most males, often times long before the young of the year are even full grown.

pair of red phalaropes

Unfortunately most birders will only ever know the magnificent Red Phalarope in their black, white and gray winter plumage. These brick red birds in full breeding plumage are a site to see. Note the more subdued plumage of the in-focus male. The more brightly marked female is seen in the background.

Ruff in gallant display (Brian Zwiebel)

Ruff is rare but regular in North America during the breeding season © Brian Zweibel

The Ruff is rare but regular in North America during the breeding season. There are a few records of this species about annually in northern Alaska in June. The odds of a pair finding each other for breeding purposes is remote at best but accounts of successful nest do exist. This exquisite specimen had not found an appropriate mate so took to displaying to a Pectoral Sandpiper. He could be seen strutting his stuff for the female, then subsequently being chased off by an apparently jealous male Pectoral Sandpiper.

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