Thursday, 22 August 2013

Sandpipers that don’t pipe on the sand

During recent visits to the hides at a local mud-fringed reservoir I have enjoyed watching Green Sandpipers and Common Sandpipers, among other passage migrant waders. 

While observing (and attempting to photograph) these birds, I have mused over the name “sandpiper”. This monicker is sometimes applied to the whole Scolopacidae family, a large group of waders that certainly includes some sand-loving birds, such as the Sanderling. But what about those birds whose English names actually include the word “sandpiper”?

Around the world you can find more than 20 species named as sandpipers, but I can think of only one that can actually be found piping on the sand — and that is a bird only found thousands of miles from the UK. 

Despite their name, most sandpipers avoid the seashore. Instead, they feed around the muddy margins of freshwater lakes and ponds, where they eat small invertebrates picked out of the lacustrine gunk. Most of them breed in bogs in the Arctic tundra or taiga and spend the winter around inland lakes in the southern hemisphere. 

The few sandpipers that can be seen at the seaside usually avoid sandy beaches. They either feed on rocky shorelines (Purple Sandpiper, Rock Sandpiper) or forage in salt marshes (Curlew Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper). Some others tend to avoid wetlands altogether and prefer to feed on open grassland (Upland Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper). 
And the one sandpiper that actually enjoys a day at the beach? It is the endangered Tuamotu Sandpiper, endemic to French Polynesia, where it breeds only on a few rat-free atolls in the Tuamotu archipelago. This rare bird is not closely related to other sandpipers, but since it can actually be found on sandy shores and also has a piping call — unlike the whistles, trills and chirps of other sandpipers — it appears to be the only wader that actually pipes on the sand.

However, I must admit that the name “sandpiper” has a pleasant ring to it. I certainly wouldn’t want any British sandpipers to be renamed bogwhistlers, pondtrillers or mudchirpers.