Birds – Red Backed Sandpiper

(Tringa alpina pacifica)


Length—8 to 9 inches.

Male and Female—In summer: Chestnut red streaked with black above, many feathers tipped with white; lower back and upper tail coverts blackish; wing coverts and tail feathers brownish gray; breast whitish streaked with dusky; under parts white, with a large black patch in the middle. (Summer dress worn early and late.) In winter: Upper parts brownish or ashy gray; under parts white or grayish, sparingly streaked; the sides sometimes spotted with black. Bill long, black, and curved downward; legs and feet black. Immature birds have the blackish feathers of upper parts with rounded tips of chestnut or buff; the breast washed with buff and indistinctly streaked; white underneath, spotted with black.

Range—North America; nesting in the Arctic regions, wintering from Florida southward. A few remain farther north in sheltered marshes. Rare inland; common coastwise.

Season—Transient visitor; April, May; August to October.

Never far from the sand bars and mud flats exposed at low tide, or the salt water marshes back of the beaches, flocks of these red-backed sandpipers, that are not always clad in their winter feathers when they come to spend the autumn on our shores, pursue the daily round of duties and pleasures common to their tribe. It is not an easy matter, even to one well up in field practice, to name the multitudinous sandpipers on sight, since their plumage, never bold or striking, often differs greatly with age and season, making the task even more difficult than that of correctly naming every warbler. But the long, decurved bill of this sandpiper offers the surest clue to its identity at any time.

With this bill the sand worms are dragged forth from their holes and the tiny shell fish from the depths in which they have buried themselves at low tide. It appears to be quite as sensitive in feeling after food as a snipe’s. Or it will be used to pick morsels from the surface and to seize insects on the wing in the salt meadows. Usually these sandpipers keep close together in their feeding grounds and during flight, offering all too tempting a chance for a pot shot. Because they are unsuspicious from passing so much of their lives in Arctic desolation, unmolested by men, dogs, and guns, their gentle confidence passes for stupidity here. Is it through stupidity or some higher trait that the survivors of a flock, just raked by a bayman, return immediately, after a hurried, startled whirl, to the spot where their companions lie dead or wounded and helpless, calling forth a pity in them not shared by the man behind the gun, who, with another discharge, rakes the survivors ? One inveterate old reprobate on Long Island proudly exhibited over fifty of these and pectoral sandpipers that had been feeding with them, as victims of only three shots.

In the spring, when lively impulses move all birds to interesting performances, these dunlins, as our English cousins call them, go through some beautiful wing manoeuvres calculated to inspire admiration in the speckled breast of the well beloved. ” As the lover’s suit approaches its end,” to cite an author quoted by Mr. D. G. Elliot, “the handsome suitor becomes exalted, and in his moments of excitement he rises fifteen or twenty yards, and hovering on tremulous wings over the object of his passion, pours forth a perfect gush of music until he glides back to earth exhausted, but ready to repeat the effort a few minutes later. Murdoch says their rolling call is heard all over the tundra every day in June, and reminds one of the notes of the frogs in New England in spring.” Up at the far north, where the love making and nesting are commenced by the first day of summer—for the birds make a very short stay here in spring—the males utter ” a musical trilling note, which falls upon the ear like the mellow trickle of large drops falling rapidly into a partly filled vessel.” Three or four precocious chicks, that have emerged from pale bluish white or buff shells heavily marked with chocolate, run about the tundra with their still devoted parents in June, and are able to fly expertly in July, when the first migrants reach our shores.