Creature Feature: Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper - Photo Rob Thorn

The little sandpiper nimbly stepped through the puddles at the edge of Hoover Reservoir. Silent as it was, I would’ve overlooked it if it hadn’t moved. Slightly smaller than a yellowlegs, but with a darker back, it teetered briefly on grayish-green legs. A closer look saw the odd white spectacle mark around the eyes, a giveaway mark for a Solitary Sandpiper (scientific name, Tringa solitaria). This is one of our most widespread migrant sandpipers, showing up on almost any body of water. It’s perhaps one of the most overlooked or mis-identified shorebirds in Ohio, which is doubly perplexing since they’re so widespread.

Solitary sandpipers are part of a big group of long-legged sandpipers that favor still waters, and can often be found around fresh water. It’s closest relative is the Green Sandpiper of Eurasia, but other members of the group include the Yellowlegs (Greater and Lesser) of North America and the Redshanks of Eurasia. All are in the genus Tringa, a cosmopolitan group that includes the more unusual Greenshanks, Tattlers of the Pacific Ocean, and even the Willet. The birds all have long legs and a rather long straight beak, and use their beak to pick live food items off the surface of the water or mud, rather than probe deeply like other long-billed shorebirds. The long, thin beak may allow them to grab their prey before getting close enough to startle it.

Solitary Sandpipers are a bit unusual for a Tringa because they’re, well, solitary. Most Tringa sandpipers travel and forage in large flocks. How often have you seen a single yellowlegs or willet? Flocking behavior may help these birds in both feeding and predator-detection, with the result that birds like yellowlegs are clustered, noisy, and always moving. Solitary Sandpipers show none of that. They move infrequently and with lots of stop time. They rarely call, usually only emitting a sharp “peep-eep” when they’re flying away. Their behavior and coloration allows them to blend into marshes & mudflats, so they’re not easily spotted. They’re hardly ever in large flocks, though I’ve seen 3-5 in good habitats. They’re like the anti-social cousins of the other Tringa sandpipers.

Solitary Sandpipers, though, are not so solitary during the breeding season. They breed throughout boreal forest and taiga areas of Canada and Alaska, where they have the very un-sandpiper-like habit of re-using old tree nests of other birds. They seem to favor medium-large nests – like those of Robins, Waxwings, and Jays – but the nest must be in or at the edge of a forested area near water. Courtship involves a flight song, like many sandpipers, and an established pair will noisily defend a territory against other Tringas. They produce 3-5 eggs, and the young are precocial like other sandpipers, and jump down from the nest shortly after hatching. Presumably there’s a period where the young chicks troop after the parents, learning how & where to feed.

Where can you find them on migration in central Ohio? The more appropriate question might be where can’t you find them. They can show up on almost any body of water, no matter how tiny or fetid. I’ve seen them feeding at tiny puddles in a cow pasture, in sewage ponds, and along small creeks through meadows. Where you won’t find them is woods; they seem to only hit that habitat during breeding. Most wetland areas around central Ohio can have them, but to increase your chances, focus on big wetlands like Pickerington Ponds, the Battelle Darby Wetlands on the Teal Trail, or Wildlife Areas like Delaware Reservoir or Big Island. Just remember to look for the stand-offish sandpiper that’s not with the flock.