Neltje Blanchan.

Birds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls online

. (page 17 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

smaller copy of the preceding species, although on close scrutiny

213



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

we note that its central tail feathers are not long and sharply
pointed, and that its longer upper tail coverts are white instead of
blackish. These white tail coverts, so conspicuous in flight,
help to define the bird from Baird's Sandpiper, that has dingy
olive brown coverts; but we must depend upon the white-
rumped bird's larger size, chiefly, to tell it from the semipalmated
sandpiper. This is a sociable little wader, often flocking with
its cousins, and so offering frequent opportunities for comparison
of these often confused species. In winter the upper parts are
plain brownish gray, and the streaks on neck, breast, and sides
are less distinctly streaked. No striking peculiarities of habit
distinguish it : it is a peaceful, gentle, friendly, active, little sprite,
like the majority of its kin; too confiding, often, to save its body
from the ultimate fate of the gridiron and the skewer. Its note
is a piped weet, weet.

Baird's Sandpiper ( Tringa bairdii), far more common in the
interior than on the Atlantic coast, closely resembles the white-
rumped species in size and plumage, and may be distinguished
from it "by the fuscous instead of white middle upper tail-cov-
erts," says Mr. Frank Chapman. "In summer it differs also in
the absence of rufous above, the less heavily spotted throat, and
the white instead of spotted sides. In winter the chief distin-
guishing marks of the two species, aside from the differently col-
ored upper tail-coverts, are the buffy breast and generally
paler upper parts of bairdii." Colonel Goss says these sand-
pipers are more inclined to wander from the water's edge
than the white-rumped species, whose habits they otherwise
closely resemble, and that he has flushed them on high prairie
lands at least a mile from the water.



214



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.



Least Sandpiper

(Tringa minutilla)

Called also: PEEP; MEADOW OX-EYE; STINT; WILSON'S
STINT; SANDPEEP

Length 6 inches. Smallest of our sandpipers.

Male and Female In summer : Upper parts dingy brown, the
feathers edged with chestnut or buff; the lower back and
upper tail coverts plain black, like the central tail feathers;
outer tail feathers ashy gray. Line over eye, throat, sides, and
underneath white, more buffy, and distinctly streaked with
blackish brown on neck and breast. (Immature birds have
not these distinct streaks.) In winter: General appearance
gray and white; upper parts brownish gray; breast white
or pale gray ; not distinctly streaked ; other parts white. Bill
black ; legs greenish ; toes without webs.

Range North America at large ; nesting in the Arctic regions and
wintering from the Gulf states to South America.

Season Transient visitor; May; July to October.

Flocks of these mites of sandpipers, often travelling with
their semipalmated cousins, whose popular names are indiscrimi-
nately applied to them also, come out of the far north just as
early as the young are able to make the long journey. Chicks
that in June leave the drab or yellowish eggs thickly spotted
with chestnut brown, run from the mossy ground-nest at once;
and in July, when family parties begin to congregate in Labrador,
join the whirling companies of adults in many a preliminary wing
drill before descending to the States. Innocent of evil, confiding,
sociable, lively little peepers, their tiny bodies offering less than a
bite to a hungry man, neither their faith in us nor their pathetic
smallness protects them from the pot hunters. True sportsmen
scorn to touch them. A single pot shot may and usually does
kill a score of birds; yet, so ignorant are they of man and his
inventions, the startling report of a gun drives them upward but
a few yards for a confused whirl en masse that ends on the ground
where it began, and often before the dead and wounded victims
can be picked up. Celia Thaxter's lines on the little sandpiper
charmingly describe its touching confidence.

215



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

Running nimbly along the mud and sand flats of beaches;
over rocks slippery with seaweed ; in marshes and dry, grassy
inland meadows too; or dancing just in advance of the frothing
ripples, where the waves break high on the sand, graceful and
dainty in every movement they make, these tiny beach birds en-
liven our waste places until November storms drive them south.
Who cannot recall a walk along some beach made memorable by
the cheerful companionship of these gay mites running and flit-
ting not far ahead and calling back peep, peep, in response to one's
whistle ? By far the most numerous waders that visit us, one can
scarcely fail to find them, if not in scattered companies apart, then
in flocks of their numerous relations. Usually they are busily,
playfully gathering larvae, insects, worms, and tiny shell fish that
may be picked off the surface or probed for, a quiet intruder not
in the least interrupting their dinner. Startle them and they
gather into a mass, whirling about, showing their backs as well
as their under parts, and with much shrill peeping; but their
easily restored confidence soon returns, and they again alight on
the good feeding ground, though it may not be a rod away.

The Semipalmated (half webbed) Sandpiper, or Sand Ox-eye,
also known as Peep (Ereunetes pusillus), scarcely more than
a half inch longer than the least sandpiper, and so like it in plu-
mage and habit it may scarcely be distinguished from it in a flock
where these two cousins mingle, has its toes half webbed, its
diagnostic feature. Those who refuse to shoot birds in order to
name them will have some difficulty here. Possibly this sand-
piper keeps closer to the water than its little double that is often
found in the meadows. Both birds are so frequently seen chasing
out after the waves, to pick up the tiny shell fish, worms, etc.,
they uncover, and more rapidly being chased in by them as the
foam curls around their slender legs, that it is impossible to think
of either as anything but beach birds. They are marvelously ex-
pert in estimating the second they must run from under the comb-
ing wave about to break over their tiny heads; but if the rushing
waters threaten a deluge, up they fly, flitting just above the foam-
ing ripples until they subside, leaving a harvest behind. The
semipalmated sandpiper swims well when lifted off its feet by
an unexpected breaker, or when wounded in the wing.

216



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

The Western Semipalmated Sandpiper (Ereunetes occidenl-
alis), the representative of the preceding species west of the Mis-
sissippi, differs from it in having the plumage of its upper parts
more distinctly chestnut red, the breast more heavily streaked, and
the bill a trifle longer; but neither species differs perceptibly in
habits from the least sandpiper, and neither one is larger than an
English sparrow.



Red-backed Sandpiper

(Tringa alpina pad/lea)

Called also.- DUNLIN; BLACK-BELLIED SANDPIPER; BLACK
BREAST; PURRE; FALL OR WINTER SNIPE; LEAD-
BACK; BRANT SNIPE; STIB; OX-BIRD

Length 8 to 9 inches.

Male and female In summer: Chestnut red streaked with black
above, many feathers tipped with white; lower back and
upper tail coverts blackish; wing coverts and tail feathers
brownish gray; breast whitish streaked with dusky; under
parts white, with a large black patch in the middle. (Summer
dress worn early and late.) In winter : Upper parts brown-
ish or ashy gray; under parts white or grayish, sparingly
streaked ; the sides sometimes spotted with black. Bill long,
black, and curved downward; legs and feet black. Imma-
ture birds have the blackish feathers of upper parts with
rounded tips of chestnut or buff; the breast washed with
buff and indistinctly streaked; white underneath, spotted
with black.

Range North America; nesting in the Arctic regions, wintering
from Florida southward. A few remain farther north in
sheltered marshes. Rare inland; common coastwise.

Season Transient visitor; April, May; August to October.

Never far from the sand bars and mud flats exposed at low
tide, or the salt water marshes back of the beaches, flocks of these
red-backed sandpipers, that are not always clad in their winter
feathers when they come to spend the autumn on our shores,
pursue the daily round of duties and pleasures common to their
tribe. It is not an easy matter, even to one well up in field

217



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

practice, to name the multitudinous sandpipers on sight, since
their plumage, never bold or striking, often differs greatly with
age and season, making the task even more difficult than that of
correctly naming every warbler. But the long, decurved bill of
this sandpiper offers the surest clue to its identity at any time.

With this bill the sand worms are dragged forth from their
holes and the tiny shell fish from the depths in which they have
buried themselves at low tide. It appears to be quite as sensitive
in feeling after food as a snipe's. Or it will be used to pick
morsels from the surface and to seize insects on the wing in the
salt meadows. Usually these sandpipers keep close together in
their feeding grounds and during flight, offering all too tempting
a chance for a pot shot. Because they are unsuspicious from
passing so much of their lives in Arctic desolation, unmolested
by men, dogs, and guns, their gentle confidence passes for stupid-
ity here. Is it through stupidity or some higher trait that the
survivors of a flock, just raked by a bayman, return immediately,
after a hurried, startled whirl, to the spot where their companions
lie dead or wounded and helpless, calling forth a pity in them
not shared by the man behind the gun, who, with another dis-
charge, rakes the survivors ? One inveterate old reprobate on
Long Island proudly exhibited over fifty of these and pectoral
sandpipers that had been feeding with them, as victims of only
three shots.

In the spring, when lively impulses move all birds to in-
teresting performances, these dunlins, as our English cousins call
them, go through some beautiful wing manoeuvres calculated to
inspire admiration in the speckled breast of the well beloved.
" As the lover's suit approaches its end," to cite an author quoted
by Mr. D. G. Elliot, "the handsome suitor becomes exalted, and
in his moments of excitement he rises fifteen or twenty yards, and
hovering on tremulous wings over the object of his passion, pours
forth a perfect gush of music until he glides back to earth ex-
hausted, but ready to repeat the effort a few minutes later.
Murdoch says their rolling call is heard all over the tundra every
day in June, and reminds one of the notes of the frogs in New
England in spring." Up at the far north, where the love making
and nesting are commenced by the first day of summer for the
birds make a very short stay here in spring the males utter "a
musical trilling note, which falls upon the ear like the mellow

218



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

trickle of large drops falling rapidly into a partly filled vessel."
Three or four precocious chicks, that have emerged from pale
bluish white or buff shells heavily marked with chocolate, run
about the tundra with their still devoted parents in June, and are
able to fly expertly in July, when the first migrants reach our
shores.



Sanderling

(Calidris arenaria)

Called also: SURF SNIPE; RUDDY PLOVER; BEACH BIRD

Length 7 to 8 inches.

Male and Female In summer : Upper parts varied blackish
brown, reddish chestnut, and grayish white, most feathers
tipped with the latter; wing coverts ashy brown, broadly
tipped with white, making a bar across wings; tail brownish
gray, margined with white, the outer feathers nearly white;
throat and breast washed with pale cinnamon and spotted
with blackish ; other under parts, immaculate white. Bill,
' about as long as head, stout, straight, black ; broader at the
tip than at its slightly concave centre. Feet with three
toes only; no hind toe; scales of tarsus transverse. In
"winter : The chestnut in upper plumage replaced by gray, or
mixed with brown and gray in the spring; under parts pure
white. Immature birds in autumn lack the chestnut tint
and are more evenly mottled ; brownish ash or blackish and
white above, pure white below ; rarely with a spot on breast.

Range Nearly cosmopolitan, nesting in the Arctic regions or
near them ; south in winter as far as Chile and Patagonia.

Season Spring and autumn visitor; March to June; September,
October.

Commonest of the beach birds everywhere, the sanderlings
for it is impossible to think of them except in flocks run
about like a company of busy ants on our coast and sometimes
inland too, near large bodies of water that are followed in the
migrations. Gleaning from the sand flats with an eagerness
suggesting starvation, their heads pushed forward, alert, nimble-
footed, nervously quick in every movement, the birds' every
energy while with us appears to be concentrated on the business
of picking up a living as if they never expected to see food again.

219



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

Among the semipalmated, the least, and other sandpipers they
often hunt with, sanderlings may be readily picked out by the
attitude of the head and their fearful eagerness. Impressions of
their three toes (a plover characteristic) in the wet sand, at low
tide, cover a good feeding ground like fret work. Chasing out
after the receding breakers, picking up the minute shell fish, ma-
rine insects, shrimps, seeds of sedges, etc., strewn over the flats,
the active little troop outstrips the frothing waves on the back-
ward race with marvelous agility. Rarely, indeed, does the
curling foam reach the immaculate white under plumage; no
combing breaker ever drenches the sanderlings unawares, how-
ever absorbing their dinner appears to be; yet deep water has no
terrors for them. Wading is a frequent diversion, and swimming
becomes the safest resort for wounded birds.

Bay men, who habitually carry guns and shoot at every-
thing wearing feathers, tell you that sanderlings are wary little
creatures, never so gentle and confiding as many sandpipers that
may be raked from a few yards; but possibly if these men car-
ried only field glasses, and kept up a reassuring peet-meet whistle
as they slowly approached a busy flock a possibility to make
a longshoreman smile the alleged timidity would be found to
disappear and the birds to remain. Startle them, and rising and
moving like one bird toward the sea, calling shrilly as they fly,
on they go along the coast line no further than a few hundred
yards, their bodies turning and twisting in the air, their under
parts glistening where the sunlight strikes them. Instantly, on
alighting, the flock begins to feed again. Follow these birds to
Florida in winter, and one finds apparently the same ones still
feeding. Captain Feilden, the naturalist in General Greely's
Arctic expedition, reported sanderlings in flocks of knots and
turnstones, and a nest in latitude 82 33' north. It was on a gravel
ridge above the sea, and the eggs (three or four light olive brown,
finely spotted and speckled with darker) were deposited in a
slight depression among ground willow plants, the lining of the
nest consisting of a few withered leaves and dry catkins.



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.



Marbled Godwit

(Limosa fedoa)

Called also: MARL1N; BROWN MARLIN; STRAIGHT-BILLED
CURLEW; RED CURLEW; GREAT MARBLED GOD-
WIT; DOE-BIRD

Length 16 to 22 inches; largest of the shore birds except the

long-billed curlew.
Male and Female General impression of plumage pale, dull

chestnut red barred and varied with black. Head and neck

Eale buff streaked with black; entire upper parts reddish
uff, irregularly barred with black or dusky ; throat white ;
rest of under parts pale reddish buff, the strongest shade
under wings ; wavy dark brown lines on all feathers except
on centre of abdomen, which is pale buff. Long bill, curving
slightly upward, flesh colored at base, blackening near the
tip ; long legs, ashy black. Female larger. Immature birds
are similar, but lack most of the brown lines on under parts.

Range Temperate North America; nesting in the interior chiefly
from the upper Mississippi region north to the Saskatchewan ;
wintering in Cuba, Central and South America ; rare on
Atlantic coast.

Season Chiefly a spring and autumn migrant in United States;
May ; August to November.

Conspicuous by its size and coloration among the waders,
the great marbled godwit might be confused only with the long-
billed curlew at a distance where the slight curve upward of the
godwit's bill and the pronounced downward curve of the cur-
lew's could not be noted. It is not the intention of the godwit to
give anyone a near view of either plumage or bill. The most
stealthy intruder on its domains salt or fresh water shores,
marshes, and prairie lands startles it to wing ; its loud, whistled
notes sound the alarm to other marlins hidden among the tall
sedges, and the entire flock flies off at an easy, steady pace, not
rapid, yet not to be overtaken afoot. A beautiful posture, common
to the plovers, curlews, terns, and some other birds, is struck just
as they alight. Raising the tips of the wings till they meet high
above the back, the marlins suggest the favorite attitude of angels
shown by the early Italian painters.

Devoted to their companions, as most birds of this order are,



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

the godwits lose all shyness and caution when some members
of the flock that have been wounded by the gunner, cry out for
help. Unwilling to leave the place, and hovering round and round
the spot where a dead or dying comrade lies, they seem to forget
their fear of men and guns, now replaced by a sympathy that risks
life itself. Just so they hover about a nest and cry out sharply in
the greatest distress when it is approached, until one feels ashamed
to torment them by taking a peep at the four clay colored eggs,
spotted, blotched, and scrawled over with grayish brown, where
they lie in a grass lined depression of the ground. The nests
are by no means always near water; several seen in Minnesota
were in dry prairie land.

The marlin feels along the shore somewhat as an avocet
does, its sensitive bill thrust forward almost at a horizontal, as
touch aids sight in the search for worms, snails, small crustaceans,
larvae, and such food as may be picked off the surface or probed
for as the bird walks along. Suddenly it will stop, thrust its bill
into the mud or sand up to the nostrils, and, snipe fashion, feel
about for a worm that has buried itself, but not escaped. Stand-
ing on one long leg, the other somehow concealed under the
plumage, the neck so drawn in it seems to be missing from the
marlin's anatomy, the bill held at a horizontal this is a charac-
teristic attitude whether the bird be standing knee deep in the
water, or among the prairie grass.

The Hudsonian Godwit, Ring-tailed Marlin, White-rumped,
Rose-breasted, or Red-breasted Godwit (Limosa hcemastica),
while it resembles the preceding in habits, differs from it in
length, which is about fifteen inches, and in plumage, which is
as follows: Upper parts black or dusky; the head and neck
streaked with buff, the back barred or mottled with it; upper
tail coverts white (conspicuous in flight), the lateral coverts tipped
or barred with black; the tail black, with a broad white base and
narrow white tip; throat buff streaked with dusky; the under
parts chestnut red barred with black, and sometimes tipped with
white. This bird, not so rare on the Atlantic coast as its relative,
is nevertheless not common either there or elsewhere in the
United States.



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.



Greater Yellowlegs

(Tot anus melanoleucus)

Called also: BIG YELLOWLEG; TELLTALE OR TELLTALE
SNIPE; LARGE CU-CU; YELPER; TATTLER; STONE
SNIPE; WINTER YELLOWLEG; YELLOW SHANKS

Length 13 to 14 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts dark ashy speckled with white; the
head and neck streaked; the back and wings spotted; space
over eye and the throat white; tail dusky, with numerous
white bars ; the white breast heavily spotted with black ; sides
barred ; underneath plain white. (Winter and immature birds
have the upper parts more ashy or gray, and almost black
in summer, and the markings on sides and breast fade in
autumn.) Bill two inches long or over; long, slender, yellow
legs.

Range America in general, nesting from Iowa and northern Illi-
nois northward, and wintering from the Gulf states to Pata-
gonia.

Season Chiefly a spring and autumn visitor; April, May; July to
November.

A "flute-like whistle, wheu, wheu-wheu-wheu-wheu, when,
wheu-wheu," familiar music to the sportsmen in the marshes, tells
the tale of the yellowlegs' whereabouts ; and a responsive whistle,
calling down the noisy, sociable birds to the wooden decoys even
from a greater height than their bodies may at first be seen, or
bringing them running from the muddy feeding grounds to their
supposed friends, lures them close enough to the blind for a pot
shot. Consternation seizes the survivors; they fly upward and
jostle against each other; they dart now this way, now that, crying
shrilly as they blunder upward in a zigzag course; but calming
their fears as the whistle from behind the blind reassures and
entreats, down wheel the confiding innocents again, only to be
stretched beside their stiffening companions at a second discharge
of the gun. So this alleged sport goes gaily on through the
autumn, although no one on the Atlantic coast, at least, raves over
the sedgy flavor of the stone snipe's flesh, or often tries to give
a better reason for bagging the birds than that they frighten off
the ducks! In the west the flesh is more truly desirable.

223



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

Noisy, hilarious chatterers, their shrill notes, four times re-
peated, coming from an entire flock at once, after the manner of
old squaws, these tattlers, that are always inviting kindred flocks
to join theirs, excite other birds to restless habits like their own,
and keep themselves well advertised in the marshes and about the
bays and estuaries where they feed. Yet they are exceedingly
vigilant in spite of their noise, and are the first to pass an alarm.
It is only by screening oneself behind a blind, and whistling the
birds within range of nothing more formidable than a field glass
and a camera, that the altruistic bird hunter may hope to study
the wary fellows. As a flock whirls about in wide, easy circles
before alighting, they appear to be yellow legged white birds.
Before actually touching the ground with their dangling feet, the
wings are flapped, then raised above the back to a point where
they meet a posture suggesting a scorn of earth then they are
softly folded into place. As the bird walks, it carries itself with
a stately dignity, yet the long bill turned inquisitively from side to
side detracts not a little from the general impression of elegance.
Wading up to its breast in shallow waters, or running nimbly
over the sand flats and muddy beaches, the yellowleg keeps its
bill almost constantly employed dragging worms, snails, and
small shell fish from their holes, probing for others, and picking
up tiny crustaceans swimming along the surface of the water or
crawling over the beach.

It is a long excursion from Labrador to the Argentine Re-
public, yet birds hatched at the end of June at the north reach
South America in October, leaving again in March, and so enjoy
perpetual summer.

Yellowlegs

( Tot anus flavipes)

Called also: SUMMER YELLOWLEGS; LESSER TELLTALE;
TELLTALE SNIPE; YELPER; LITTLE CU-CU; LESSER
YELLOWSHINS; LITTLE STONE SNIPE, ETC

Length 10 to 12 inches.

Male and Female Coloration precisely as in the greater yellow-
legs. This bird is to be distinguished only by its smaller
size, and its proportionately longer legs.

224



Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

Range North America at large, nesting from the northern states

to the Arctic regions; wintering from the Gulf states to

Patagonia.
Season Chiefly a spring and autumn visitor; more abundant in

autumn; rarely a summer resident; April, May; July to

October.

The haunts, habits, and noisy voices of the two species of
yellowlegs are so nearly identical, like their plumage, that a
description of them would be simply a repetition of the larger
bird's biography. From the fact that some of these birds nest
within the United States limits, they have been called summer yel-
lowlegs ; but the great majority act precisely as their larger double