Thursday, September 6, 2012

Least "Mudpiper"

Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) at Montezuma N.W.R., NY on May 13 - © Dave Spier (#D045935)

What's in a name? Take the compound word "sandpiper." Sand refers to the beach where these shorebirds are often found. The Lake Ontario shoreline of New York quickly comes to mind. Piper refers to the sound made by some species, although it's more of a peep. There's a group of small sandpipers, all similar in appearance, collectively nicknamed "peeps," in reference to their voices. Among these, the smallest is the Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla. Not only is it the smallest to pass through New York, it is the smallest shorebird in the world.

Least Sandpipers begin showing up in New York's Finger Lakes Region in April, peak through May, then decline in June and early July as the last of the birds fly to the Canadian tundra to nest and breed. Early migrants that failed to nest begin returning in early July and this reverse flow continues to build through the summer, peaks in September and trails off to end abruptly before November. The eBird bar chart for Wayne and Seneca Counties (NY) will illustrate this - but you can create a chart for any state or county you choose.

Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) at Montezuma N.W.R., NY on May 18 - © Dave Spier (#D029504)

Most of our eastern birds seem to winter along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida, or across the Gulf coast south into Mexico and northern South America.  You can see the entire eBird range map for Least Sandpipers (or any species) on the Explore Data page.

Dark feathers with buffy or rusty edges give sandpipers a scaly appearance on the back and wings. The belly is usually white while the head, neck and chest are various shades of brown. The black bill, used to probe for food, is longer and thinner than the bills of songbirds. Most small sandpipers have black legs, but here is the one distinguishing feature of least's; their legs are yellowish or greenish-yellow.

Least "mudpiper" at Montezuma N.W.R., NY on May 18 - © Dave Spier (#D029488)

The length of a shorebird's bill determines its feeding style and diet. A very short bill, like that of a Semipalmated Plover, limits it to feeding on the surface. At the other extreme, very long bills like those of snipe, dowitchers and curlews, allow them to probe deeply into mud. Inbetween are most of the sandpipers which probe to a shallow depth and capture aquatic invertebrates like insects, small crustaceans, worms, and mollusks such as small clams and mussels. The Least Sandpiper prefers to feed on mudflats giving it the nickname "mud peep." Does that mean we should change its name to the least mudpiper?

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page or photo page or Linked-in. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.  For more information on the Finger Lakes region, visit

The photo below is a migrating Least Sandpiper on the Lake Onatrio shore at Charlotte Beach (a.k.a. Ontario Beach Park), Rochester, NY on September 18 - © Dave Spier (#1148-13 scanned from a slide)

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