August: Solitary Sandpiper
We find ourselves in August – the end of a summer defined by oppressive urban heat. These past few weeks have been nothing short of sweltering in Philadelphia and as we all know, August typically brings no respite for those who like low temperatures and little humidity. This month’s bird however rarely has an issue with heat. Found milling around the banks of freshwater bodies, this bird beats the heat simply by existing in its natural habitat.
Our first member of the waterfowl family – the Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) – is August’s bird of the month. A migratory bird passing through these parts during August and September, the Solitary Sandpiper is drawn to shady streamsides, wooded swamps and ponds, flooded ditches, and fresh marshes where it forages for insects and aquatic invertebrates. Beetles, dragonfly nymphs, grasshoppers, crustaceans, spiders, worms, mollusks, and occasionally small frogs are all on the menu for this voracious sandpiper. These migratory birds need every ounce of energy they can get though as they make one of the farthest migrations out of any bird we have since learned about.
Solitary Sandpipers spend their summers in the boreal forests of the northern reaches of Canada, but when winter freezes over their breeding territory, they spend the late summer and early fall flocking to the swamps and riverbanks of the Amazon Basin where food is plentiful. Despite the incredibly long journey, the birds mostly fly alone and at night, making this aviating feat even more fascinating. This migration in August results in the many numbers that we may see around our area. Don’t try to look too hard for them either. Given that they don’t have to share their lonely trek, they can oftentimes be found in small bodies of water in a local preserve or wetland not too far from urban areas.
While the Solitary Sandpiper is one species that hangs around the inland of the United States, the sandpiper family is a larger community. Down the Jersey shore and up and down the east coast, Semipalmated, Spotted, Baird’s, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers are among some that dot the surf and the back bays. What makes the Solitary Sandpiper different is that this bird remains loyal to its freshwater roots. More explicitly though, its name alludes to the fact that these birds like to travel alone. Typically, you will never see more than one of these birds in the wild, so keep that in mind if you think you have spotted one.
Other key characteristics to look out for are the movement they make. It has a habit of bobbing the back half of its body or trembling its tail and feet (a behavior assumed to kick up small critters under the surface) as its foraging which can be a dead giveaway for identification. And when it comes to color, the Solitary Sandpiper has distinct olive-gray wings, and black and white tail, and bright eyering (the ring of color around a bird’s eye comprised of orbital feathers or bare skin). In flight, dark underwings will also contrast the light-colored underbelly.
For more information about the Solitary Sandpiper, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. And for advice on what may attract other birds you enjoy, visit their Project FeederWatch for community-based tips, resources, and photographs.