Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1929: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 146 (Part 2): 78 - 97]
The spotted sandpiper is one of the successful species of birds. The old writers, speaking of a time when the surface of the country was very different from at present, are in accord as to the abundance of this bird in North America. Wilson (1832) refers to it as "very common"; Nuttall (1834) says it is "one of the most familiar and common of all the New England marsh birds"; and Audubon (1840) reports it "quite abundant along the margins of the Mississippi, the Ohio, and their tributaries," and "on the island of Jestico, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, about 20 pairs had nests and eggs. . .and the air was filled with the pleasant sound of their voices."
At the present time we find the bird apparently little diminished in numbers. In the numerous local lists published from every part of the country the spotted sandpiper almost always has a place. Notations such as "seen daily throughout the summer" or "common along the streams" indicate the wide distribution and abundance of the species. Indeed it is the best known of our sandpipers, not only because of its extensive breeding range, extending from coast to coast and northward into Alaska and Labrador, but by reason of its individual and peculiar habit of flight and its characteristic notes.
Almost every inhabitant of the United States, sometime during the year, may meet this graceful little wader stepping delicately along the margin of some sandy pond, the shore of the sea, or skimming from perch to perch on the rocks bordering a mountain stream.
Poised well above the ground on its slim greenish-yellow legs it walks slowly and carefully along the shore, picking up a bit of food now on this side, now on that. It goes forward with a switching motion, head reached well forward and a little lowered. Except when creeping up within reach of an insect or when its attention is riveted on the snapping up of a bit of food, the tail is almost continuously in motion up and down. At the least alarm the motion is increased to a wider arc until the posterior half of the bird's body is rapidly teetering. A little increase in alarm and the bird is off on vibrating wings held stiffly and cupped with the tips depressed, sailing along the shore away from danger. As the bird takes wing it gives, almost without exception, its whistled call, peet-weet-weet, a call so associated with the bird that Nuttall long ago gave it the name peet-weet.
Spring.--The spotted sandpiper moves northward earlier than the other sandpipers. It enters the transitional zone in late April and early May, its time of arrival coinciding very closely with the chewink, another ground feeder. It returns to its breeding ground inconspicuously, never passing by in the large flocks characteristic of many sandpipers, but appears on the first day of its arrival running about on the shore of its chosen bit of water, apparently settled for the season. In this habit of not gathering into flocks it resembles its relative the solitary sandpiper.
Wright and Harper (1913) speak of a few birds, left behind after most of the species had spread over the country to the north, tarrying in the Okefenokee Swamp till late in the spring:
The spotted sandpiper was a distinct surprise as a summer resident of the swamp. Not only is this several hundred miles south of its known breeding range, but one would not expect it to find a suitable haunt in the Okefenokee. The lakes and rivers are practically shoreless; they are simply open spaces in the otherwise continuous cypress swamps. However, the logs and driftwood near the edges of Billys Lake serve as teetering stands; half a dozen were seen here on May 11, one on June 5, and still another a few days later. The species probably does not breed in this latitude.
Courtship.--The courtship of the spotted sandpiper has not been observed very minutely. Some of the few published reports on the subject show a discrepancy in details, and one, giving an instance of display by a bird proved by dissection to be a female, casts doubts on all records of courtship based on sight identification and raises the question as to the respective roles played by the sexes in the homelife of the species.
Bradford Torrey (1885), assuming the bird to be a male, speaks of
a spotted sandpiper, whose capers I amused myself with watching, one day last June, on the shore of Saco Lake. As I caught sight of him, he was straightening himself up, with a pretty, self-conscious air, at the same time spreading his white-edged tail, and calling, 'tweet, tweet, tweet.' Afterwards he got upon a log, where, with head erect and wings thrown forward and downward, he ran for a yard or two, calling as before. This trick seemed especially to please him, and was several times repeated. He ran rapidly, and with a comical prancing movement; but nothing he did was half as laughable as the behavior of his mate, who all this while dressed her feathers without once deigning to look at her spouse's performance.
Whittle (1922) describes a similar action of a bird observed in Montana on May 29:
One of the birds, judged to be a male, was seen standing on a long, inclined timber, while another, presumed to be a female, fed close by along the shore. The male first walked the length of the timber and then flew to another one, where he depressed and spread his tail, and, without teetering, stalked slowly along its entire length, with head bent low.
Lewis O. Shelley (1925) reports from New Hampshire a courtship display which differs from the two previous ones. Here again the respective sexes are assumed:
A female sandpiper came running along the brook, occasionally stopping to pick up an insect and teeter, then run on again. Behind her were two males, the first strutting along, looking much like a goose, craning his neck up, swelling out his throat, drooping his wings, and spreading his tail; the second kept well to the rear, and did no strutting.
Every time the female stopped for a second, or slowed, the male would dart past her and stop, throw his head higher, and make a 'fump, fump, fump' in his throat. If that failed to attract her attention, he would again pass her and alternately spread wings and tail. This performance went on all the afternoon, until almost dusk.
This observation describes a courtship in which the behavior of the aggressive bird corresponds closely, especially in the movements of the head, with the action of the bird noted in the next quotation--a bird proved by dissection to be a female.
A. J. Van Rossem (1925) gives the following extract from Dr. Loye Miller's notebook:
Altitude, 9,000 feet; Mammoth Lakes, Inyo County, Calif.; July 4, 1923: [spotted] sandpipers are just beginning to pair, and several seen in courting flights. One especially active bird was shot and proved to be a female. She came to an imitation of the call--soared over a fallen log before alighting on it. She then ruffed out the feathers and strutted like a turkey cock, with head thrown back. The ova were the size of buckshot.
Nesting.--The breeding range of the spotted sandpiper, extending over a vast area of diversified land, ranging in altitude from sea-level to 14,000 feet, and including both arid and well-watered country, makes necessary in the bird a wide degree of adaptability in the choice of its nesting site. Few birds show a greater variation in this respect, and among the places which the bird selects to lay its eggs there is but one point in common--the proximity of water.
The following quotations bring out the extreme variety of nesting sites. Mearns (1890) writing of the bird in Arizona says: "These birds were apparently breeding at a small lake, in a crater-like depression at the summit of a volcanic peak arising near the western base of the San Francisco cone, the lake being at an altitude of from 10,000 to 10,500 feet." Shick (1890) reports the bird in New Jersey as breeding "in the higher parts of the island, generally on a sandy knoll in the high, rank sedge grass," and Audubon (1840) speaks of the nests "in Labrador, where, in every instance, they were concealed under ledges of rocks extending for several feet over them, so I probably should not have observed them, had not the birds flown off as I was passing." He also speaks, quoting Nuttall, of "their eggs laid in a strawberry bed." Dwight (1893) records a nest "found in an odd situation at Tignish [Prince Edward Island]. It was under a decayed log in a boggy slope, and was carefully lined with bits of rotten wood."
In the use of material to construct or line its nest the bird shows nearly as much variation as in the choice of the nesting site and it may be stated roughly that the more northerly the latitude of the breeding ground, the bulkier is the nest. Audubon (1840) says, speaking of the nests found in Labrador:
They were more bulky and more neatly constructed than any that I have examined southward of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. . . . These nests [those in Labrador] were made of dry moss, raised to the height of from 6 to 9 inches, and well finished within with slender grasses and feathers of the eider duck.
Brewster (1925) speaks of the bird as
especially given to breeding on small islands in Lake Umbagog [Maine], scarce one of which is left untenanted by them at the right season or resorted to by more than a single pair. Their eggs, almost invariably four in number, are usually laid during the last week of May, in saucer-shaped hollows scraped in surface soil, and thinly lined with dry grass. . . . If the island be treeless and ledgy, the nest is likely to be on or near the most elevated or central part, and more or less well concealed by grass or other lowly vegetation. But if all the ground, not subject to inundation, be densely wooded, the spot where the bird has hidden her treasures is seldom far back from the shore, and perhaps scarce above highwater mark, usually where driftwood has accumulated, or beneath the leafy branch of some outstanding alder or Cassandra bush. In such places as these, it is by no means easy to find the nest, even when the total area to be searched is only a few rods square. The task may well seem hopeless if undertaken in the open farming country about the southern end of the Lake, for, although spotted sandpipers breed here not uncommonly, they are so widely and sparsely distributed over the hilly pastures and fields of considerable extent, that it is only by the merest chance that anybody ever stumbles on a nest. The only one that I have happened upon was well hidden in a tangle of withered grass and ferns, covering a steeply sloping bank by the roadside.
In incubation as well as in courtship the male has been shown to assume duties which are usually ascribed to the female. The following quotation illustrates this fact. Van Rossem (1925) says:
On July 11, in a boggy meadow near the water's edge, we found a nest of four eggs which seemed nearly fresh. We often had occasion to pass this nest, but there was never more than one bird present. On July 25 the eggs had hatched and after a short search we found the downy young in the short grass. They were collected with the parent, which proved to be the male. The sides of his breast and belly were worn quite bare of feathers, showing that he had done most of, if not all of, the incubating. The succeeding days, we frequently passed the old nesting place, but never saw any other sandpiper in the vicinity. On July 26 Alden Miller and the writer were on the headwaters of the San Joaquin River, in Madera County [California], and while there found a nest on a grass-grown gravel bar in the river. It contained young which were just emerging from the shells. These were collected with the parent which, as in the first case, was a male. We were at this nest and in the immediate vicinity nearly an hour, but no other adult appeared.
Although as a rule the spotted sandpiper does not build near the nest of other birds of the same species, in exceptional cases many pairs nest in close proximity to each other.
L. McI. Terrill (1911), illustrating this gregarious habit, says:
A few years ago a large colony were nesting on Isle Ronde (a small island of a few acres, opposite the city of Montreal). Visiting this island on May 31, 1896, I located without difficulty 13 occupied nests. Again, on May 31, 1898, I examined upward of 25. On each occasion only a small portion of the island was examined, and I estimated that there were well over 100 pairs breeding.
Mousley (1916) points out that--
It may not be generally known that these birds if flushed whilst constructing their nest invariably desert it, at least this has been my experience on four occasions, when I have flushed both birds whilst in the act of scooping out or lining the hole. In one instance, however, they made a fresh nest within 45 feet of the old one.
Eggs.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The spotted sandpiper lays almost invariably 4 eggs, very rarely 5, and rarely only 3. These are ovate in shape, less pyriform than the eggs of most waders, and they have only a very slight gloss. The prevailing ground color is "cartridge buff," with some variations to "pinkish buff," or "pale olive buff." They are irregularly spotted or blotched, usually both; sometimes they are finely and evenly sprinkled with small spots; and very rarely the markings are concentrated at the larger end. The markings are mostly in very dark browns, "seal brown," "clove brown," and "blackish brown," and rarely as light as "Mars brown" or "russet." The underlying markings are generally lacking or inconspicuous, but some handsome eggs are blotched with "lavender gray," "pallid purple drab," or "brownish drab." The measurements of 88 eggs, in the United States National Museum, average 32 by 23 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 34 by 25, 29 by 23, and 33 by 20 millimeters.]
Young.--The young spotted sandpiper furnishes an instance of an ancestral habit springing into action almost at the moment of hatching. When no larger than the egg from which they have just stepped they run over the sand teetering their tail in the manner of their parents. My notes mention a little bird, no more than a tiny ball of fluff, which stood on my hand waving up and down the feathery plumes of its infinitesimal tail.
Wilson (1832) says: "The young, as soon as they are freed from the shell, run about constantly wagging the tail," and Nuttall (1834) speaks of "the habit of balancing or wagging the tail, in which even the young join as soon as they are fledged."
Another example of the precociousness of the fledgling sandpiper is its ability to swim while still in the down. G. M. Sutton (1925) speaks of the habit thus:
Upon several occasions within the writer's experience downy young of the spotted sandpiper, when closely pursued, have taken to the water, where they swam lightly although not very rapidly in making an escape.
Dr. C. W. Townsend (1920) cites a case in which a young bird, evidently in juvenal plumage, swam under water:
In Labrador I caught a nearly full-grown young still unable to fly and put it in a small river. It at once dove and swam under water for a distance of 3 or 4 feet, using for propulsion its wings and probably its feet, although I could not be sure of the latter point. It then rose to the surface and swam to the opposite side like a little duck and walked out on the sand, where the mother was anxiously calling.
Aretas A. Saunders also mentions in his notes a case for diving:
Young birds when away from the parent and threatened with danger often take to water and dive and swim under water, using the wings to help swim. At such times the down is covered with air bubbles, which helps keep them dry and gives them a silvery appearance. Once I pursued a young bird I wished to band, and it did this so many times that it became wet in spite of the air bubbles, and in fact was quite chilled through for a time.
More commonly the method of escaping danger adopted by the young sandpipers is to lie motionless on the beach, where a pebbly shore affords an ideal background for concealment. William Palmer (1909) brings out the success of this ruse thus:
While walking along a beach one summer a spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia) and a single young were noticed some distance ahead. As I approached the place the old bird, with the startled manner characteristic of its kind at such a time, kept well ahead, but I could not find the other. Going back some distance, I waited and soon saw it again with its parent. I repeated my quest, and again failed to find the youngster. Going back once more and again seeing it rejoin the old bird, I slowly moved forward, keeping my eyes this time very intently on it, and soon picked it up from the sand, an unwilling captive.
A. A. Saunders gives in his notes a picture of the parental care of the young. The young birds are--
able to run and follow the parent when about half an hour from the egg (two instances). The parent leads them away and watches over them for a few days after hatching, after which they gradually stray away from her (?) care. At Flathead Lake [Montana] one bird hatched her young and led them down the beach, and I followed to see what would happen. When I got too near the mother (?) called 'Peet! peet! peet!' in a loud, sharp call. The young immediately flattened themselves down among the pebbles so effectually I could only find one. I sat down on a log, and after waiting some 20 minutes the parent quieted down--flew to the opposite side of her young from me, turned and faced them, and began to call 'tootawee, tootawee, tootawee' over and over. The young immediately responded and began a hurried run for the mother (?), calling baby 'peeps' and tumbling over the pebbles in their eagerness. The parent half spread its wings as they arrived and they took shelter beneath, just as chickens do under a hen.
The period of incubation is 15 days.
Plumages.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The young spotted sandpiper in the natal down is quite uniformly grizzled or mottled on the upper parts, from crown to rump, with "buffy brown," wood brown," grayish buff, and black. The forehead is grayish buff, and the entire under parts are white; a narrow black stripe extends from the bill through the eye to the nape; a black patch in the center of the crown extends as an indistinct median stripe down the nape and broadens to a black band along the back to the rump.
The juvenal plumage comes in first on the mantle and wings, then on the flanks, breast, and crown, and lastly on the neck, rump, and tail. The upper parts are "light brownish olive," more grayish on the sides of the neck and chest; the scapulars and upper tail coverts have a subterminal sepia bar and are tipped with pale buff or creamy white; the lesser and median wing coverts are conspicuously barred with pale buff and sepia; the chin, throat, and under parts are white.
During the fall, beginning late in August, or in September, some of the body plumage, tail and some tertials and wing coverts are molted, producing the first winter plumage. This postjuvenal molt is very limited and very variable; I have seen birds in juvenal plumage as late as December 3. The first winter plumage is like the adult winter, except for the retained juvenal wing coverts. It is worn until March or April. The wings are molted during the winter at any time from October to April; and during March and April the body plumage is molted, producing the first nuptial plumage. This is like the adult nuptial, but there is more gray on the sides of the neck and less spotting on the breast, sometimes very little of the latter. But the plumage is practically adult, except for a few retained juvenal wing coverts.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt beginning with the body plumage in August, or earlier, and ending with the molt of the primaries at any time from October to April. In winter plumage the upper parts are plain "dark grayish olive," shading off lighter on the sides of the head and neck; the under parts are white, faintly washed with grayish on the throat. The partial prenuptial molt, involving only the body plumage comes in March and April and produces the spotted breast of the nuptial plumage.]
Food.--At the seacoast the spotted sandpiper searches for its food both on the beach and on the muddy borders of creeks and inlets, wading into the water, however, less frequently than most sandpipers; inland it feeds along the margins of sandy ponds, sluggish meadow streams and rushing mountain torrents; in farming country it strays into the meadows, fields, and market gardens and finds in all these situations food which it picks up from the low vegetation or from the ground.
Like some of the other sandpipers, however, and like several other birds which have the agility to do so, it easily captures flying insects even when they are on the wing. In order to come within striking distance of an insect before it flies away, the spotted sandpiper resorts to a ruse by which its approaching head and beak are concealed or made inconspicuous. As the bird walks over windrows of seaweed and such places where flies abound, it stretches its body out with the bill pointing straight in front, the whole bird lengthened into a line with the long axis parallel to the ground. In this position the head, from the flies' point of view, is masked by the body as a background and the bird is enabled to come so near that it can snap up a fly, even after it has taken wing, by a straight forward movement of the head. In stalking a flying prey the spotted sandpiper creeps up to the fly, moving slowly with cat-like steps, the tail motionless, and apparently never adopts the well-known trick of the semipalmated sandpiper, the running about with the hind part of the body tilted far upward, advancing upon a fly under cover of this as a screen.
A complete list of the insects which form the spotted sandpiper's diet, could one be compiled, would doubtless be a very long one, comprising as it would both marine and land insects. The wide range of the bird's choice of food is shown by the following quotations which prove definitely that it is a very beneficial species to the agriculturist.
E. H. Forbush (1925), speaking of the bird's habit of frequenting cultivated fields, says:
They feed largely on locusts, grasshoppers and caterpillars, such as cutworms, cabbage worms and army worms, also beetles, grubs and other pests of cultivated lands.
H. K. Job (1911) writes:
The usual food of most species of this class [shorebirds] is aquatic insect life of all sorts. This is in part the diet of the spotted sandpiper. But as it is also a bird of field and pasture, its range of insect food is very wide, including grasshoppers and locusts. Probably almost anything in the insect line is grist for its hopper, and it is a most useful bird.
Austin H. Clark (1905a) furnishes the following unusual observation:
While on the island of St. Vincent, West Indies, last October, I observed a number of our shore birds feeding on the young of a small fish known as the "tri tri" (Sicydium plumieri), which were at that time ascending the Richmond River, near which I was staying, by thousands. The land about the lower reaches of this river was laid completely bare by the recent eruptions of the Soufriere, and in its present state proves very attractive to all the species of shore birds which visit the island during the migrations. Those observed or proved by dissection to be eating the young tri tri (which were at that time from half an inch to an inch and a quarter long) were. . .solitary sandpipers (Helodromas solitarius), and spotted sandpipers (Actitis macularia). All but the last two kept near the mouth of the river, or on the flat lands along its lower reaches; the solitary sandpiper followed the stream up into what were formerly arrowroot fields, half or three-quarters of a mile from the sea, and the spotted sand piper was found well into the mountain forests.
W. H. Bergtold (1926) cites an instance of the bird's catching another swift-moving fish. He says that the caretakers at the Wigwam Fishing Club, Colorado, "reported the spotted sandpiper as also catching trout fry."
The following quotation adds crickets to the list of insects; H. W. Jewell (1909) writes:
While sitting on the banks of Sandy River one night I was attracted to the actions of a spotted sandpiper. There were lots of crickets on the shore of the river, and the sandpiper would catch one in its bill, run up to the water, and immerse the insect several times, then swallow it. This seemed a very interesting performance to me, and I wondered if all living insects caught are thus treated before they are eaten. The cricket is quite a large insect, and as this bird ate 10 or 12 he did not go to bed hungry that night.
Alexander Wetmore (1916), who examined the contents of nine stomachs, says: "Though mole crickets (Scapteriscus didactylos) were found in but two stomachs, they form 10.78 percent of the total food." Summarizing his findings, he concludes, "From the foregoing the spotted sandpiper is a beneficial species and should not be molested."
Behavior.--Nothing is more characteristic of the spotted sandpiper than its flight. When it first starts from the shore the wings seem to vibrate like a taut wire; then, as the bird gains headway, they set and, depressed and quivering, they carry the bird slowly onward, often swaying from side to side, close to the surface of the water. As a rule, when startled, the sandpiper takes a semicircular course and alights a short distance farther up the beach, and if followed either takes another flight onward or doubles back as a kingfisher would do under similar circumstances. This scaling flight, somewhat after the manner of a meadow lark, is seen most commonly during the summer, but on infrequent occasions the sandpiper lets go his wings and carries them back with a long, free sweep and speeds through the air with the rapidity of a swallow. The transition from one kind of flight to the other is remarkable to see; with outstretched neck it drives along with regular wing beats, a long, slender, unfamiliar-looking wader.
J. T. Nichols mentions in his notes this peculiar flight; he says:
One might be familiar with the bird for years and believe it [the scaling flight] invariable. Careful attention in late summer and fall, however, will demonstrate that it is not. When, as rarely happens, the spotted sandpiper rises to some height to make a considerable aerial passage (especially over a stretch of marsh) the flight becomes regular, like that of a miniature yellowlegs, or swift and darting, as it sometimes is with a white-rumped sandpiper for instance. It also, at times, flies low over the tops of the marsh grass in this last named manner. To identify such birds in the air is very difficult, and they will pass for some one of the other sandpipers of rather small size if one does not chance to appreciate the slenderer neck and somewhat different shape, or the more uniform color of the upper parts.
The ability to swim and dive which is so noticeable in the young of the spotted sandpiper is even more remarkably evident in the behavior of the adult bird. Of the many instances recorded in the literature, the following will illustrate this well developed proclivity.
E. H. Forbush (1912) speaks thus of the action of a wounded bird:
In September, 1876, I saw a wounded bird of this species, when pursued, dive into deep water from the shore of the Charles River and fly off under water, using its wings somewhat as a bird would use them in the air. All its plumage was covered with bubbles of air, which caught the light until the bird appeared as if studded with sparkling gems as it sped away into the depths of the dark river.
Late (1925) he adds a record of the bird actually running along the bottom while entirely submerged. The spotted sandpiper--
can dive from the surface of the water or from full flight, at need. Under water it progresses by using its wings which it spreads quite widely, and in shallow water it can go to the bottom and run a short distance with head held low and tail raised like an ouzel or dipper.
G. M. Sutton (1925) describes the behavior of two birds which he startled by a close sudden approach. In the first quotation he shows that the spotted sandpiper readily dives while on the wing and continues its flight under water and in the second quotation he shows the bird's ability to rise directly into the air from beneath the water, a feat impossible for many water birds.
When the bird first flushed, its wings were fully spread, and it was headed for the open water of the lake. Upon seeing me towering over it, however, it turned its course abruptly downward, and without the slightest hesitation flew straight into the water. With wings fully outspread and legs kicking it made its way rather slowly along the sandy bottom, until it was about 8 feet out, in water over 3 feet deep. I pursued the bird, thinking at the time, strangely enough, that it was wounded. When I reached for it, it tried to go farther but apparently could not. Bubbles of air came from its mouth, and air bubbles were plainly seen clinging to the plumage of its back. At the time it was captured its mouth, eyes, and wings were all open, under water, and it remained at the bottom seemingly without difficulty. As it lay in my hands above water it seemed tired for a second or two, and then, without warning, shook itself a little, leaped into the air, and with loud, clear whistles, circled off a few inches above the water to a distant point of land.
On a subsequent occasion, May 7, 1925, Mr. Sutton--
purposely came upon a spotted sandpiper suddenly and witnessed it employ almost the identical tactics in making an effective escape. At this time, however, the bird dove into running water, swam with wings and feet rapidly moving for about 20 feet, and emerged down stream, still flying, and made off in its characteristic way, only a few inches above the water.
L. L. Jewel (1915) watching a sandpiper in Panama under most favorable circumstances, was able to make out clearly the position of the feet while the bird was swimming under water. The beach where Mr. Jewel made this observation was, as he describes it:
a wide coral reef, bare at low tide, and with occasional openings or "wells" connected underneath with the sea. Some of these are of considerable size and the water in all is as clear as crystal to all depths--clear as only those who have seen tropical "coral water" can imagine. . . .
I had however a perfect view of the bird as he "flew" the 10 feet across the pool, through the beautifully clear water which showed white pebbles distinctly on a bottom perhaps 20 feet below. The bird crossed at a uniform depth of 18 inches to 2 feet, which he held until he brought up against the opposite wall. The head and neck were extended but not at all stretched while the legs and feet trailed behind with flexed toes, like a heron in flight. The wings seemed to be opened only perhaps half their full extent--the primaries pointing well backward like wings are trimmed as birds cut down from some height to alight. The wing-beats were slow and even but not labored, and progress was uniform and not at all hurried.
In addition to the anomalous behavior of the spotted sandpiper in and under the water, the bird shows a further departure from the regular habits of the other shore birds in its ability and frequent tendency to perch on small supports which requires a grasping power in the feet to hold the bird in place. My notes supply an extreme instance of this habit, noting the action of an adult bird (exercised, to be sure, over the safety of its young) which alighted on a slender wire running between poles and stood crouched a little and leaning forward, but keeping its balance by securely gripping the wire.
The literature furnishes one other record of grasping a wire. L. L. Snyder (1924) reports thus:
On June 25, 1923, at Orient Bay, Lake Nipigon, Ontario, the writer observed a spotted sandpiper perching on a telegraph wire. The fact that the species was perching was not surprising but the size of the perch made the observation of interest. The bird was not in an erect position, being squatted, which probably made the feat less difficult. In this case the act was entirely voluntary and not an instance of unusual conduct due to the pressure of an emergency.
Other quotations, showing the bird acting in unsandpiper-like behavior, follow. Mousley (1915) says:
On one occasion only have I seen a very excited parent bird with young alight on a cat-tail head, and very out of place and uncomfortable it seemed to be.
H. H. Cleaves (1908) says:
We were returning along a rather unused railroad when, in an area to one side, which was flooded for the most part with a number of inches of water, we noticed a spotted sandpiper flying about in circles and acting peculiarly. We had all come to the conclusion that her young were about somewhere, when she did a most peculiar thing. The wet area in question was covered with considerable underbrush, out of which grew rather tall, second-growth timber. The sandpiper alighted on the tops of some of these trees, on the small twigs, and remained balancing there for some time, fully 25 or 30 feet from the ground. This performance she repeated several times, making her appear for all the world like a perching bird.
P. A. Taverner (1919) says:
Common all along the river [Red Deer River, Alberta] and breeding everywhere. One bird on being flushed from her eggs flew into adjoining bushes and climbed about them in a most unwaderlike style while complaining at our intrusion.
J. T. Nichols points out in his notes that the foot of the spotted sandpiper is adapted to its peculiar habits; that the bird is able to grasp a small object because the front toes are nearer together than in most waders and the hind toe is more developed. He says:
The footmarks of the spotted sandpiper on moist sand or mud are recognizable. Compared to those of related birds, the toes are relatively little spreading, and the mark left by the hind toe relatively large and conspicuous.
Under the title "Spotted Sandpiper Removing Its Young," J. C. Merrill (1898) describes a very remarkable performance, the only record of such behavior noted in the literature.
A clearly observed case of the spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia) removing its young by flight recently came under my notice, and I place it upon record, as such instances are rarely seen, though they are, perhaps, of tolerably frequent occurrence, as in the case of the woodcock.
Last summer, in the month of July, I frequently landed on a little rocky islet near the head of the Saquenay River, shortly after it issues from Lake St. John. Each time a spotted sandpiper showed much concern for her young, which were often seen running about and were a few days old. On one of these occasions, the mother ran ahead of me to a point of rocks near which I stopped to fish. A few moments later she flew, circling in the usual manner, and as she passed in front of me and within a few feet, I saw one of the young beneath her body, apparently clasped by her thighs; its head was directed forward, somewhat outstretched, and was seen with perfect distinctness. The parent's legs were apparently hanging down as she flew, though I am not positive that what I saw were not the legs of the young. The mother was in sight for about 60 yards, flying heavily and silently, and landed on a large island, though I could not see her at the moment of alighting.
Voice.--The notes of the spotted sandpiper are mainly modified and extended from its common alarm note, the sharp, clear whistle, peet-weet, but as in the case of many birds, degrees of emotion may be expressed by a little change in pitch or inflection. When considerably alarmed the bird continues to repeat the weet note, often given a long series which trails off in diminuendo like the quacking of a duck.
J. G. Nichols (1920) describes a series of notes:
'Hoy, hoy, weet, weet, weet, weet, weet, weet, weet' is a prolonged call frequently heard in the early part of the nesting season, in toto or in part, suggesting in that respect the cuckoos. It doubtless has value as advertisement or location notice and something the significance of a very generalized song. A series of loud weets, heard also at other times of year, the most far-reaching call of the species, doubtless serves as location notice.
A. A. Saunders in his notes similarly describes the "song." He says:
I believe the long call 'weet, weet, weet, weet, weet, weet, weet, peet a weet, peet a weet, peet a weet, peet a weet' serves as a song. I have seen it sung in flight, when the actions and flight of the bird were similar to those of other flight singers.
Both of these observers describe the soft crooning note used by the parent to bring together its young. Nichols says that "a rolling note, kerrwee, kerrwee, kerrwee, now loud, now very low and distant, has been heard from an adult with the evident purpose of assembling her young; and Saunders speaks of a parent bird which called to its young, tootawee, tootawee, tootawee, tootawee over and over. The call is like the peet a weet form, but lower pitched and softer."
A common note, heard during the summer on the breeding ground when the birds are undisturbed, resembles closely the whistle of the little frog, Hyla pickeringii. This is a far-reaching whistled note, not given in a series like the weet, weet call. It is a single note, apparently repeated over and over again, not regularly, but always with an interval between repetition.
It is clear that Nichols has this note in mind when he says, "Pip! pip! pip! is a note heard between adult birds in the breeding season which seems to be of polite address, or possibly impolite, as it is almost identical in form with a note of protest by old birds when nest or young are threatened."
Continuing, he describes two other notes, "the pit-wit-wit frequently heard from adults as a note of departure may best be considered a variation of this one [the pip wip of the young] as also the peet weet weet or weet weet most frequent a little later in the season as little companies of birds start out over the water for longer or shorter distances.
"An old bird, surprised near her brood and fluttering off playing wounded called cheerp cheerp a sort of scream as of pain and fear."
Field marks.--The spotted sandpiper is one of the prettiest, most delicate, and trim of the shore birds; in place of the browns and greys of the streaked upper parts of most waders there is a plain greenish sheen on the back, and in autumn across the breast a soft tint like a fawn. Through the glass the wings show a fine mottling, suggesting a wren. The line of white at the posterior margin of the open wing is a good diagnostic mark, and its habit of teetering makes identification certain. The only bird which resembles the spotted sandpiper at all closely is its larger relative the solitary sandpiper, but the characteristic motion of this bird is a ploverlike hitching movement or bob, as if hiccoughing, very different from the spotted sandpiper's rapid swaying up and own of the hinder part of the body.
Enemies.--The chief enemies of the spotted sandpiper are the swift-moving hawks, whose pursuit it sometimes successfully eludes by diving in the manner described above. J. E. H. Kelso (1926) records an instance of this habit. He says:
Skirting the lake sore in my sneak boat a spotted sandpiper was repeatedly disturbed, flew along in front of the boat to settle again and again on the shore. It then made off to cross a small bay, when a pigeon hawk dashed out from some trees and made a stoop or two at the dodging sandpiper, which would certainly soon have been captured in the air if it had not suddenly alighted on the water. This for a few seconds confused the hawk, which circled just over its quarry and appeared to try to capture it with its talons. The sandpiper dove, remaining under 3 or 4 seconds. The hawk on the disappearance of its intended victim at once made off at a great pace.
W. H. Osgood (1909) describes an escape in this manner from an attack by a northern shrike.
Wilson (1832) in his most charming manner tells this delightful story:
My venerable friend, Mr. William Bartram, informs me that he saw one of these birds defend her young for a considerable time from the repeated attacks of a ground squirrel. The scene of action was on the river shore. The parent had thrown herself, with her two young behind her, between them and the land, and at every attempt of the squirrel to seize them by a circuitous sweep raised both her wings in an almost perpendicular position, assuming the most formidable appearance she was capable of, and rushed forwards on the squirrel, who, intimidated by her boldness and manner, instantly retreated; but presently returning was met, as before, in front and on flank by the daring and affectionate bird, who with her wings and whole plumage bristling up seemed swelled to twice her usual size. The young crowded together behind her, apparently sensible of their perilous situation, moving backward and forward as she advanced or retreated. This interesting scene lasted for at least 10 minutes; the strength of the poor parent began evidently to flag, and the attacks of the squirrel became more daring and frequent, when my good friend, like one of those celestial agents who in Homer's time so often decided the palm of victory, stepped forward from his retreat, drove the assailant back to his hole, and rescued the innocent from destruction.
A. A. Saunders sends the following suggestive note:
Once on Sherwoods Island, Westport, Conn., in September, I saw a bird fly ahead of me with something large and black looking dangling beneath it. The bird could hardly fly and tried to hide in the beach grass as I approached. I caught it and found that a large specimen of the common edible mussel (Mytilus edulis) had closed its shell on the middle toe of the bird's left foot. The toe was nearly severed just above the nail, and since I couldn't pry the mussel open, I cut through the bit of skin left and freed the bird.
Fall.--As is the case during its northward migration, the spotted sandpiper leaves its breeding ground and moves to its winter quarters inconspicuously, showing little tendency to gather into flocks. Its voice is not infrequently heard among the notes of the autumnal nocturnal migrants--an indication that the bird in a measure makes use of the safe, dark hours during its long journey southward.
Cooke (1897) says: "In the fall [in Colorado] it ranges above the pines to 14,000 feet," illustrating the tendency to wander about in autumn.
Game.--During the years, now past, when the smaller shorebirds could legally be shot for food or sport the spotted sandpiper suffered less than some of the other Limicolae by reason of its more solitary habit. The gunners, waiting for several of their tiny target to come within range of a single shot, often disregarded a spotted sandpiper running alone on the shore.
Winter.--Most of the spotted sandpipers leave the United States to spend the winter on the islands to the southward, and in South America, but the species is nevertheless well represented in California during the winter, and in the southern states on the Atlantic seaboard.
George Willett (1912) "found this species plentiful in winter around Santa Barbara Islands and on rocky shores of the mainland."
Dr. Alexander Wetmore (1916) speaking of the bird as a winter visitant of Puerto Rico says:
It frequents the mangrove swamps, borders of lagoons, margins of all the streams, and occasionally the sandy beaches. During the winter season it follows inland along the small streams and occurs throughout the island.
And (1927) reporting the birds' winter status in South America says--
It is a regular migrant in South America as far as Bolivia
and southern Brazil, and on March 4, 1918, several were found by
Mogensen at Concepcion, Province of Tucuman, in northern
Argentina. On October 25, 1920, one was taken by the writer near
the mouth of the Rio Ajo on the eastern coast of the Province of
Buenos Aires, the southernmost point at which the species is
Spotted Sandpiper* Actitis macularia
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1929. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 146 (Part 2): 78 - 97. United States Government Printing Office