Surprise Sandpipers

A sandpiper strolls along the lake’s shoreline, back and forth, beak rapidly in and out of the sand. Its body is slim, a little more than half a foot in length. Its upperside is light brown and scaly, and it has yellowish legs and a white eyeline. Its behind bops up and down, exposing its stark white underside, to a soundless song.

I expected to see the Little Blue Heron – a rarity for Westchester County – from the day before so that I could reconfirm that I did see a Little Blue Heron. It would be my first extraordinary bird as a birder. Instead, at seven on this mid-July morning, I found a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper. My first shorebird.

I wasn’t surprised that I’d missed the Wood Ducks, Eastern Phoebes, Great Blue Herons, Warbling Vireos, and warblers all the years I lived by the lake (24, my age). But sandpipers? At this lake? So far inland, a fair distance from the Hudson River, among a woodsy suburban region where there are networks of back roads and cul-de-sacs, where trees grow wherever houses weren’t built? I didn’t known at the time that not all sandpipers live by saltwater. Besides the Spotted Sandpiper: Solitaries, Leasts, Lesser Yellowlegs, White-Rumped, and others reside by lakes, flooded fields, wet areas in woods, marshes, ponds, and mudflats.Generally, they feed on worms, snails, insects, and small crustaceans.

My timing couldn’t have been better. Because of the lack of long and steady rains, the lake’s water level was very low. Lowest I’d ever seen – up to thirty feet away from the usual shoreline. I could see how the small tributary at the westernmost corner carved the sediment. The lily pads that were usually in the middle of lake now sat limply on the lakebed, sometimes flapping in the wind. The exposed sand would look appealing to migrating sandpipers, which were already flying south, where their wintering residence ranges from North of Mexico to South America. Though this was my first time watching at the lake for these birds, I had a feeling that their number was high for this year.

Up until that morning, on July 17th, I also took the lake in general for granted. Once I left elementary school, I only went whenever my neighborhood held seasonal parties. So after I saw a Little Blue Heron and a sandpiper, I just had to go to the lake more often.

Before continuing, a forewarning. The best thing for me was have gone to the lake every day. I didn’t do that. I thought I did. Then I reviewed my eBird lists. I had visited irregularly, and even once went without birding there a week. I probably went so infrequently because I thought I’d keep better track of the sandpipers, albeit in my own peculiarly incorrect way. Because I observed at different times each day (early morning, late morning, mid-afternoon, late afternoon), my sightings of each sandpiper species were sporadic and I didn’t see them every time I went to the lake. Just when I thought, say, the Spotted officially left September 9, I’d see it again, to my astonishment, on the 18th.

Still, I only wanted to learn what other surprise sandpipers showed and watch them be sandpipers. They tended to settle on the western side of the lake, where the man-made beach – my observing point – is located. For at least two weeks, a Solitary hung around the Spotted, foraging and preening together mostly by the beach. The Solitary Sandpiper is larger and has a similar color scheme as the juvenile Spotted, only its upperside is slightly darker brown and speckled with dark brown spots. Its head tends to bob as it forages. Like the Blue Jay and Brown-headed Cowbird, it is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in nests belonging to several songbirds.

After the Solitary left, another Spotted – with winter plumage – came along. It stayed for at least a day (August 30th) before moving on.

On August 29th, late in the afternoon, when I last saw the Solitary (foraging with the Spotted on the opposite side of the lake), I had a frustrating moment. Six sandpipers clumped by the lily pad patch closest to the tributary. Since the trees shaded the area, I couldn’t make out their exact plumage. Getting closer wasn’t an option – I’d scare them away. I took notes of size, shape, beak length, and foraging behavior, but going through my Sibley’s, Peterson’s, and Stokes’ guides I became even more uncertain. At the least I discerned there were three species. Three teeny ones closely rested. The medium-sized one with a bold white eyeline foraged near them, clearly wanting to simultaneously establish its independence and its wanting to hang with the peeps. And another small one stayed relatively close to these four – as opposed to the Spotted and Solitary – though it foraged quite far from the shoreline.

I had to eventually roll with “just sandpipers.” My eBird list currently says one Semipalmated and three Leasts, plus shorebird sp. for the medium-sized sandpiper that I nearly marked as a White-rumped. I thought I deleted the input for the Semipalm and the Leasts days before. I’m embarrassed to alter it as this point. Would the scientists and eBird authorities even notice?

On September 7th, another group of bird arrived at the lake: two plovers. Specifically, 2 Killdeer. Killdeer are common all year round in most of the United States, including New York. Besides lakes, meadows, and wetland areas, they reside in parking lots, lawns and golf courses. They are well-known for their broken-wing act, luring predators away from their nests. I observed a pair that roosted twice at Lake Meahagh in Buchanan in the summer and even saw the fledglings, which look like puffballs nicely glued together. So I wasn’t amazed that these Killdeer were at the lake. As far as I know, they’re still here. I last saw them this morning. They keep to the northwestern-most corner, by the tributary. One morning, I arrived at the lake to find sleeping on the beach with a flock of Canada Geese.

Summer concludes. Days shorten, sunlight weakens. The last official “new” sandpiper to briefly stay at the lake is the Least Sandpiper (I ID’d them correctly. The size of sparrows, Leasts are the smallest shorebirds in the world. Spending their summers northern Canada, they are mostly seen as they migrate. They tend to flock in dozens and stick the oceanic shorelines and coastal mudflats. Brown on top and white on the bottom, with black beaks and yellow-green legs. If you’ve seen them, you know how incredibly cute they are. They look pudgy: they hunch as they forage.

These two Leasts booked their nights for only September 9th and 10th. On the 9th, they closely followed the Spotted along the beach, taking their time as they foraged. Their beaks probed the sand like delicate jackhammers. Once all three at last reached the cattails on the left side of the beach, the Spotted suddenly took off, calling several peet weet’s. It flew over my head, allowing me a clear view of the white stripes on its wings. Meanwhile, the Leasts stood still, startled that their friend left. The next day, I found them with the Killdeer by the tributary.

The sandpipers have traveled far past New York State by now. When the Spotted will leave I have yet to really know. Considering September is more than halfway through, the final time I see it is probably when I last observed it. Meanwhile, the Killdeer are still there. They might make the lake their home.



August 8 (morning): 1 Spotted

August 14 (late afternoon): 1 Spotted, 1 Solitary

August 15 (mid-morning): Solitary

August 29 (late afternoon): 1 Spotted, 1 Solitary, 6 unknowns

August 30 (late-morning): 2 Spotted

September 1 (mid-morning): 1 Spotted

September 7 (late morning): 1 Spotted, 2 Killdeer

September 8 (mid-afternoon): 2 Killdeer

September 9 (morning): 2 Killdeer

September 9 (late-afternoon): 1 Spotted, 2 Least

September 10 (mid-morning): 2 Killdeer, 2 Least

September 13 (morning): 2 Killdeer

September 18 (mid-afternoon): 1 Spotted

September 19 (morning): 2 Killdeer


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