Grays Harbor Birds — Pectoral Sandpiper

Size: 8.75 inches

General Description: With a name like Pectoral Sandpiper, you know the chest is a distinguishing factor, especially during breeding plumage as is the one featured in the accompanying photo. The males have inflatable sacs in their chests, used during courtship displays. Described as a larger version Least Sandpiper the Pectoral Sandpiper is medium-sized, has a heavily-streaked breast, and a sharp line separating the breast and the white belly. The legs are yellowish-green, the bill is orange-based with a black, droopy tip, and the tail in fight has a dark streak down the middle with white on either side. Males are 25% larger than females.

Habitat: Pectoral Sandpipers breed in the North American Arctic and northern Siberia where they can be found on the dry edges of wetlands and tundra. During migration, look for them in both fresh and salt-water marshes, on mudflats, and in wet meadows and agricultural areas.

Behavior: Pectoral Sandpipers walk steadily with their heads down, feeding on surface prey and probing just under the surface, head rocking slightly as they move. They often forage in vegetation, and when disturbed, stand upright with necks extended to see over the grass. They often move in the company of small groups of the same species or mixed flocks.

Diet: During the breeding season, Pectoral Sandpipers eat flies and fly larvae, spiders, worms, and seeds. During migration, they eat small crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates, as well as insects.

Nesting: Pectoral Sandpipers are promiscuous, with both sexes mating with multiple partners. Males arrive on the breeding territory first and vigorously display as they defend their territory. When the females arrive, the males redouble their efforts by rhythmically expanding and contracting the air sacs in their chest and during their flight display. The female builds a scrape lined with grass and leaves in a slightly elevated, grassy spot on the ground, well-hidden by low shrubs. She lays four eggs and incubates for 21 to 23 days, then provides all the parental care when they leave the nest soon after hatching. The male is already heading south on his return migration. The female stays with the young for 10 to 20 days, then she too heads south leaving the youngsters to start to fly at about 21 days, and capable fliers by the age of 30 days.

Migration Status: Pectoral Sandpipers are what is known as extreme, long-distance migrants, with some of them making an 18,000-mile round-trip journey between breeding grounds in the Arctic and wintering grounds in southern South America, Australia, and New Zealand. The birds that migrate through Washington are most likely Siberian breeders that travel across the Bering Strait and down the Pacific Coast.

Conservation Status: The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates about half of the estimated population of 400,000 Pectoral Sandpipers breed in North America. As with most historical reports, enormous numbers of these birds used to move across these migratory corridors. Indiscriminate shooting in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and more recently habitat loss have taken their toll, yet the bird is not classified as a species in need of high-priority conservation.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Late June is the beginning of the fall migration of Pectoral Sandpipers southbound through Washington, with increasing numbers spotted in July, and by mid-August they have become common. This is the best time to find them in the marshy areas along the Harbor, at the Oyehut Game Range in Ocean Shores, and in the dune and wet areas between the Ocean City State Park and the outer beach.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon