Birds – Least Sandpiper

(Tringa minutilla)


Length—6 inches. Smallest of our sandpipers.

Male and Female—In summer: Upper parts dingy brown, the feathers edged with chestnut or buff; the lower back and upper tail coverts plain black, like the central tail feathers; outer tail feathers ashy gray. Line over eye, throat, sides, and underneath white, more huffy, and distinctly streaked with blackish brown on neck and breast. (Immature birds have not these distinct streaks.) In winter: General appearance gray and white; upper parts brownish gray; breast white or pale gray; not distinctly streaked; other parts white. Bill black; legs greenish; toes without webs.

Range—North America at large; nesting in the Arctic regions and wintering from the Gulf states to South America.

Season—Transient visitor; May; July to October.

Flocks of these mites of sandpipers, often travelling with their semipalmated cousins, whose popular names are indiscriminately applied to them also, come out of the far north just as early as the young are able to make the long journey. Chicks that in June leave the drab or yellowish eggs thickly spotted with chestnut brown, run from the mossy ground-nest at once; and in July, when family parties begin to congregate in Labrador, join the whirling companies of adults in many a preliminary wing drill before descending to the States. Innocent of evil, confiding, sociable, lively little peepers, their tiny bodies offering less than a bite to a hungry man, neither their faith in us nor their pathetic smallness protects them from the pot hunters. True sportsmen scorn to touch them. A single pot shot may and usually does kill a score of birds; yet, so ignorant are they of man and his inventions, the startling report of a gun drives them upward but a few yards far a confused whirl en masse that ends on the ground where it began, and often before the dead and wounded victims can be picked up. Celia Thaxter’s lines on the little sandpiper charmingly describe its touching confidence.

Running nimbly along the mud and sand flats of beaches; over rocks slippery with seaweed; in marshes and dry, grassy inland meadows too; or dancing just in advance of the frothing ripples, where the waves break high on the sand, graceful and dainty in every movement they make, these tiny beach birds en-liven our waste places until November storms drive them south. Who cannot recall a walk along some beach made memorable by the cheerful companionship of these gay mites running and flitting not far ahead and calling back,peep, peep, in response to one’s whistle ? By far the most numerous waders that visit us, one can scarcely fail to find them, if not in scattered companies apart, then in flocks of their numerous relations. Usually they are busily, playfully gathering larvae, insects, worms, and tiny shell fish that. may be picked off the surface or probed for, a quiet intruder not in the least interrupting their dinner. Startle them and they gather into a mass, whirling about, showing their backs as well as their under parts, and with much shrill peeping; but their easily restored confidence soon returns, and they again alight on the good feeding ground, though it may not be a rod away.

The Semipalmated (half web bed) Sandpiper, or Sand Ox-eye, also known as Peep (Ereunetes pusillus), scarcely more than a half inch longer than the least sandpiper, and so like it in plumage and habit it may scarcely be distinguished from it in a flock where these two cousins mingle, has its toes half webbed, its diagnostic feature. Those who refuse to shoot birds in order to name them will have some difficulty here. Possibly this sand-piper keeps closer to the water than its little double that is often found in the meadows. Both birds are so frequently seen chasing out after the waves, to pick up the tiny shell fish, worms, etc., they uncover, and more rapidly being chased in by them as the foam curls around their slender legs, that it is impossible to think of either as anything but beach birds. They are marvelously ex-pert in estimating the second they must run from under the combing wave about to break over their tiny heads; but if the rushing waters threaten a deluge, up they fly, flitting just above the foaming ripples until they subside, leaving a harvest behind. The semipalmated sandpiper swims well when lifted off its feet by an unexpected breaker, or when wounded in the wing.

The Western Semipalmated Sandpiper (Ereunetes occident-ails), the representative of the preceding species west of the Mississippi, differs from it in having the plumage of its upper parts more distinctly chestnut red, the breast more heavily streaked, and the bill a trifle longer; but neither species differs perceptibly in habits from the least sandpiper, and neither one is larger than an English sparrow.