Bird Profile: Least Sandpiper, the smallest of them all

Last week I went out for a walk in my neighborhood down here in Houston, Texas. As I walked along a storm water retention basin, I noticed 2 very small shorebirds hanging out with the usual Killdeer. Upon further investigation, I discovered that they were Least Sandpipers, a species that shows up several times a year in my neighborhood during migration.

These Least Sandpipers are quite unique and their name might give you a hint as to why; this species is the smallest shorebird in the world at a mere 13-15 cm in length and weighing only 19-30 grams. The pair that I saw provided an interesting look at differences in plumage, while one was a drab adult in winter plumage, the other was a more brightly colored juvenile.

Adult Least Sandpiper in winter plumage

Juvenile Least Sandpiper

The Least Sandpiper is a shorebird known as a peep, a group of small, difficult to identify sandpipers. While many “peeps” can be challenging to identify, the Least Sandpiper is usually fairly easy to name. The number one characteristic that separates the Least from other peeps is its yellow legs, (the others have black legs) though sometimes their legs can appear dark in poor light or when covered with mud. I once read an interesting article from the American Birding Association (ABA) that described how to identify peeps based on posture; the Least Sandpiper, it said, could be separated from the other 4 regularly occurring North American peeps by these habits:

  1. They typically feed from a crouched position with their “knees” (tibia-tarsus joint) almost brushing the ground
  2. The way they plant their feet can often make it seem like they are feeding between their toes though this is not quite as evident in my photos
  3. Least Sandpipers also seem quite nervous, glancing around a lot and freezing at any sudden noise or motion.

Least Sandpiper in breeding plumage

I found this ABA article quite interesting because it adds a whole new dimension to birding, birding by posture, that not everybody may use or be aware of. You can read the full article here.

While the Least Sandpipers I saw this past week were quite timid as always, once I sat down and waited patiently, the juvenile approached me and passed by me within feet, though I had to be careful not to make any sudden motions.

Least Sandpipers have likely all passed through Calgary already on the way back from their arctic breeding grounds to warmer regions in the southern U.S.A., Mexico and South America where they will spend the winter however next May they will be right back again, to complete their long travels once again.

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