Grays Harbor Birds — Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus)

There are two times of the year that really shine for birders, spring for the return of birds we have longed to see over the winter months and fall when the birds that have been up north on their breeding territories straggle through on their way south to overwinter somewhere a bit warmer.

For those of us here on the coast, this is a great time to see mostly young, and not-so-ordinary shorebirds. So it is expected that normal work may suffer in order to spend as much time as possible outdoors looking for those special birds, if the fog doesn’t ruin the view, that is.

This is one such example.

General Description: Medium-sized wader with long, greenish-yellow legs, a fairly long neck, a long bill slightly drooped at the tip, often described as looking like a yellowlegs and feeding like a dowitcher. It is seldom seen here in breeding plumage, so our sightings are usually post-breeding adults of pale gray, light unstreaked belly, white rumps, rusty cheek patch, and white eyebrow, and juvenile birds such as the one pictured here with its lightly streaked breast and beautiful scaled back, each feather outlined in lighter color.

Size: Eight to nine inches long, with a wingspan of 18 inches, and weighing two ounces.

Habitat: Stilt Sandpipers can be found in tidal ponds and fresh water pools, and in marshes and flooded fields, wading in water up to their bellies. They are Arctic tundra breeders, so we rarely see them in Washington, except as they pass through during fall migration.

Behavior: Due to their rarity in Washington, single birds or a few can be seen mixed in with dowitchers or Lesser Yellowlegs, probing the mud for food in a sewing machine motion like that of dowitchers, and often with their heads fully underwater and tails in the air. They also pick food from the surface of the water.

Diet: While in migration mode, Stilt Sandpipers eat aquatic invertebrates, seeds, roots of aquatic plants, marine worms, and any insect they can find. Seeds picked up from the ground or water may make up as much as one-third of their diet. The rest of the year their diet is mostly insects and insect larvae.

Nesting: Males arrive on the tundra breeding grounds a few days before females, and establish a large territory with display flights and calling. Monogamous pairs re-form with little or no courtship, getting right to the business of breeding. They may nest as close as 12 feet to other shorebirds but at least 900 feet from other Stilt Sandpipers, probably as a defense against predators. The male presses a few depressions into the soft tundra then the female inspects each nest site. Once she chooses the site, the nest is lined with sedge leaves, mosses, and grasses. Both parents incubate four eggs for 19 to 21 days, with the male incubating mostly during the day and the female during the night. Within a day of hatching, the downy chicks are out of the nest walking, finding food, and hiding on their own. The adults continue to provide warmth at night, protection from predators, and lead the chicks to feeding areas for another week, when the female takes off. A week later the male leaves, just before the young fledge at about 16 days. The young leave their nesting grounds a few weeks later.

Migration: Stilt Sandpipers migrate through the Great Plains, with the fall migrants more dispersed, and juveniles can be found straggling down both coasts. Shallow pools and seasonal wetlands are a large part of their requirements, so they may be hop-scotching their way from one wetland area to the next as they move south to their wintering grounds along our gulf coast, south-eastern California, and as far south as central South America. For the spring migration, they seem to have that single-minded Arctic destination in mind as they pretty much fly straight up the center of the states.

Conservation Status: Because of their wide distribution and a wide and disconnected breeding range, the population of Stilt Sandpipers has been hard to pin down. The Canadian Wildlife Service has estimated there are approximately 200,000 birds, with a decrease in numbers on their wintering grounds in South America due to increasing development, a decrease of about 70 percent in their breeding areas around Churchill, Manitoba, but an increase of about 400% in their Alaska breeding territories. The recovery of the Canada Goose and Snow Goose populations on the Arctic breeding grounds may be harming the sandpiper, where grazing geese are altering the tundra habitat.

When and Where to Find on the Harbor: Early July through September is about the only time to see these birds, and they are hard to find. But the Oyhut Wildlife Area on the southern end of the Ocean Shores peninsula is one good spot, and Bottle Beach State Park on Hwy 105 between Aberdeen and Westport is another. It’s a great excuse to let the dishes and dust accumulate and get outdoors!


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