Friday, January 04, 2013

Sandpiper mnemonics

Joey Slinger, in Down and Dirty Birding, classifies the Sandpiper clan into three categories: Great Big Sandpipers*, Middle-sized Sandpipers**, and "Peeps"***. Ours, on the Boundary Bay flats, are middle-sized.

When I get a decent photo or two, I try to identify them, and then memorize the clues for each one.  I'm not all that good at it.

So here's my latest attempt at hammering something into my hard skull.

Last Tuesday, the tide was part-way out in the Centennial Beach area. Recent storms and high tides had scoured the upper beach clean. Most of the driftwood was 'way up there in front of the houses. The few rolls of drying eelgrass were just below that, far above their usual resting place. And most of the sand was covered with about an inch of loose sea-bottom scum.

There were no snails to be seen, but many small clams were lying loose on the sand, washed out of their hiding places. The gulls were dropping them out on the sandbars, and squabbling noisily over who got there first. A pair of eagles sat on the farthest sandbar, watching the gulls.

Along the line of wavelets at the shore, hundreds of peeps were dancing and bobbing. Further out, flocks of bigger ones stood, belly-deep, head down, bills probing. The water out there was ankle-deep to a gull; this is a very flat beach.

A dunlin.

The dunlins are the larger of the two. My latest bird book gives a length of 21.5 cm. In breeding season, (for the two weeks of breeding season they hang around), they are distinctive, with a black belly and reddish back, but most of the time, they're just another peep. But looking closely, if they don't have their bills buried up to the hilt in mud, I can see that the bill is fairly long, and turns slightly down at the tip.

Bill above water, and bill in normal pose.

These are the pipers that forage a bit further out. They move about slowly, digging deep into the mud as they go. Occasionally, they all rise at once and move on down the shore, where they settle and up-end themselves looking for sand dwellers, probably worms.

Dunlins doing their thing.

We often see flocks of these, out over the water, looking like a speeding grey cloud that briefly flashes white as it turns for the return trip.

The sanderlings are the little ones that race along at the very edge of the water, pecking quickly and moving on. Run, run, run, peck, run, peck, run, run, peck, peck . . . Their legs move, says my book, "like (a) windup toy." A perfect description.

They fatten themselves on those little amphipods, Americorophium salmonis, catching them as they wait at the mouth of their burrows, just before the tide drops and they move deep into the sand.

Smaller than the dunlin; 19 cm. long, and with a shorter, straight bill. Extremely cute.

They're a lighter shade of brown than the dunlins now, but will darken up for breeding season.

Sanderlings or dunlins flying. Both species have a white wing stripe that shows up in flight. (Click to see full size.) The ones flying upside-down are reflections.

So: sanderlings run, sanderlingsanderlingsanderlingsanderling, legs pumping away constantly. Dunlins are more serious; they get the work dun, not giving up until they've dug out their worm. And their bills point and turn dowun. Think I can remember that?

*Great Big Sandpipers I've seen around here: Whimbrels, at Iona Beach.
**Middle-sized Sandpipers, ditto: Yellowlegs, greater and lesser. Boundary Bay, Crescent Beach. Dowitchers, Reifel Island, Dunlins and Sandpipers, Boundary Bay and Semiahmoo Beach.
***Peeps: Least Sandpiper, Oyster Bay, south of Campbell River. Least is a good word for it; these are tiny!

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