This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the least sandpiper.
Weighing in at 1 ounce or less, the sparrow-sized least sandpiper is the world’s smallest sandpiper. Despite its size, in spring it is a migratory giant, moving in small flocks across much of North America to breeding grounds in extreme northern reaches. Eastern populations fly from 1,800 to 2,500 miles nonstop across the ocean from winter grounds in South America before reaching shore. These small birds breed in northern tundra and boreal forest habitats in wetlands, bogs and sedge meadows. Think lots of insects.
Males fiercely defend their display areas to drive off competing suitors. Both sexes share incubation duties, but the female may leave even before the eggs hatch. The male completes the job and stays with the young until they fledge.
Species identification of small, similar looking peeps can be a problem. Yellow legs (which may look dark if mud stained) and a thin, slightly curved bill set least sandpipers apart from other small sandpipers which stop here. In breeding plumage, these sandpipers exhibit rusty speckling on the back and a streaked throat and breast.
Stopover points along the migratory route to rest and eat are crucial to the survival of migratory birds. Shorebirds rely on wetlands, and coastal and inland water shorelines along the way to breeding grounds. Loss of these habitats have contributed to a decline, particularly in the eastern populations, of least sandpipers.
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