What is it Like to be a Sandpiper?
By: Liam W
On a cool early morning in the Alaskan tundra a Western Sandpiper male looked for dry nesting sites. The little male sandpiper diligently pushed through the cool crisp gusts of wind under a clear sky to make 4 nest scrapes in the best sites he could find. When he was done he brought his female mate over to take a look and pick her favorite one. Female sandpipers are very picky about terrain. She selected the driest tundra scrape which was closest to the marsh for feeding. Good call mama bird!
The pattern on the mama’s back bobs up and down on the tundra, as she searches for pieces of sedge, leaves and lichen to line her ground nest. After the nest is done being lined it is time for a specific tasty snack of flies, spiders & beetles, foraged from wet meadows on the tundra. Once her tummy is full, it is time to lay her eggs. She squeezes out 4 small light brown eggs with darker brown spots. The low shrubs and grass clumps hide the eggs from predators. She is tired after laying the eggs, so she sits on her eggs and takes a nap. This is the start of the incubation period that will last 21 days. The dad helps by taking the midday shift on the nest. The mom takes the night shift, early morning shift and evening shift. One day mama has had enough, and decides to fly away to the sandy beaches she has been dreaming of. Dad is left behind to finish incubating the eggs on his own. A stealthy mink steals an egg from the nest when dad goes to get food for himself.
On a nice warm afternoon, 2 days after mama flew the coup, the eggs hatched one after another. The adorable hatchlings had long thin legs, big feet, short beaks and odd patterns in their fluffy down coats. A few hours later the hatchlings get hungry, so they decide to leave the nest and go find a tasty snack. Now they will learn how to spot and capture insects & spiders in the shrubs, grass and lichen, so they can feed themselves. Their large feet have greater surface area so they can balance easier and do not sink in the wet meadows. Their long legs let them also stand in shallow water to forage. Now 2 days later while the chicks are out foraging little do the chicks know a crow is circling above all the chicks ready to snatch one up for dinner. Before the chick knows it, it is scooped up in the crow’s beak. It struggles but that does nothing to help it escape. He’s dinner now.
A few months later the chicks have grown to adolescents, which means they are young adults. They are bigger, stronger and have better stamina, so they are ready to start migrating south. Up, up and away they go down the coastlines of North America and South America. They get bigger and stronger on the trip as they get more access to amphipods and crustaceans on the mudflats and sandy shorelines. As they get bigger, their beak gets longer and they can use it to probe the sand and mud for insects below the surface. Their bills are sensitive, allowing them to feel the mud as they probe for food.
They are migrating at the same time as other species of Sandpipers. The migration mudflats are very full and busy with hundreds of sandpipers. The different species of sandpipers have different lengths of beak bills, giving them access to different food sources, so this means the lucky sandpipers can migrate at the same time because there is not too much competition between species.
After a long, long, long trip they finally reach their winter destination on the southern shores of North America or the Northern shores of South America. Now on the warm ocean beaches in the south they enjoy a very abundant and diverse food supply. They visually search and pick up items from the beach surface. Over the winter they grow to full adulthood. The cycle will begin once more when the adults return to the arctic nesting grounds. This time the chicks from the last nesting season will be ready to make their own nests and raise their own families.