Saturday, September 13, 2014

Buff-breasted Sandpipers in the Buff

Birders are prone to proclaiming their favorite bird to be either the specimen of their most recent crushing sighting or the next expected bird on a big trip. Taking the latter route, I have to say Buff-breasted Sandpipers (Calidris subruficollis) are my favorite sandpiper and one of my favorite all-around birds.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)
Buffies aren't particularly common migrants here in the Great Lakes, but they aren't particularly common anywhere. Their population hasn't been well studied, but it seems likely there are only 20,000 to 50,000 individuals on the planet today. Breeding on shorelines of the high arctic, they winter on the pampas of South America. That migratory route sends them through the Great Plains of North America where they frequent grassy fields, often invisibly.
Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Whitefish Point, Michigan (Kirby Adams photo)
In these parts, we find them in...well, grassy fields (read: airports), but they're also regulars on some of our dry and pebbly beaches. Buffies tend to use the same migratory stop-overs from year to year, so if you find some this fall it would be worth checking the same spot in the same week the next year.
Blending in at Whitefish Point (Kirby Adams photo)
My lifer Buff-breasted Sandpipers were a pair I found at Whitefish Point on Lake Superior a few years ago. I was immediately smitten with their sharp look, nearly tame behavior, and soft buffy coloration that acted as remarkable camouflage on the famous sand-and-pebble beach at Whitefish Point.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)
That tameness nearly got the species extinct a hundred years ago. Hunting impacted nearly all shorebirds, but Buff-breasted Sandpipers seemed to suffer worse than most. As far back as 1927, the ornithologist William Rowan, in describing the waders (the European term for what we in the Americas call shorebirds) of Alberta, attributed the near-demise of Calidris (then Tryngites) subruficollis to its tameness and tendency of individuals to stay with wounded flockmates. A hunter could blast a bird and take out a dozen more who stopped to check on the wounded bird.
Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)
Millions of birds had been reduced to only a few thousand by the 1920's. The population has recovered, but may be declining again due to habitat loss on migratory route and wintering grounds, as well as climate change impacts on the breeding grounds.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers are unique among North American shorebirds in showing true lekking behavior, though you'd have to travel extremely far north in May or June to see it. Great Snipe and Ruff in the old world are the only other shorebirds known to lek. Not being particularly showy birds, the lekking display of the male involves lots of jumping and wing flashing. Apparently showing off flashes of their pristine white underparts is what gets the females most excited. I really need to see a Buff-breasted lek some day. That just went on my birding bucket list.
Showing some of that white underwing (Kirby Adams photo)
This past week I got what Frank Izaguirre would call my "lifelook" Buff-breasted Sandpiper. One had been showing off and on for more than a week at an unlikely location: the breakwall in the harbor of Marquette, Michigan. I happened to be in town and strolled out to see it.
A feast of midges! (Photo by Sarah Adams)
Buffies are more comfortable in fields and on beaches that aren't surrounded by deep water, but there was a colossal hatch of midges that had a lot of birds showing interest in the concrete breakwall. After getting a couple hundred meters onto the wall, not one, but TWO of these beautiful birds appeared and strutted around for a bit. After some good looks, they took off, flying far out onto the rocky portion of the wall. We birders turned around to return to shore and shortly came upon FIVE Buff-breasteds blocking our path. Unless the originally two stealthily doubled-back, there were now seven of the birds out there.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)
At one point, one of them approached to within a meter of my feet. You can't ask for a better view than that.

Several days later the winds turned to the north and Lake Superior unleashed her fury in a storm that sent waves right over the wall. I imagine by the time dawn arrived on that stormy morning my Buffies were on the move. Uruguay or bust!
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marquette County, Michigan (Photo by Sarah Adams)


  1. It's a beautiful, delicate little bird. I don't think I have seen more than about five individuals in my life.

  2. They are wonderful birds I have to agree although coming from the UK, they are quite rare, but still have the approachable nature.

  3. I have never had the pleasure of seeing one of these sandpipers before. They are especially beautiful ... such pretty feathers. I can see why they are one of your favorite birds. Fantastic post and photographs!

  4. I wish I could see this bird where I live. I love to see pictures and videos of them doing their courtship wing waving and dance. The Eskimo curlew also had the endearing habit of checking on a bird that was shot down and now no one has seen them for a very long time. The hunters back then thought the birds were stupid because they did that. That's pretty sad.