Spotted a Spotted Sandpiper

I’m no ornithologist.  But I believe that the sandpipers that spend their summers in our neighborhood are Spotted Sandpipers.

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I found this nest while doing the morning cattle move.  The mother flopped and fluttered away when I approached, acting injured in order to draw me away from her eggs.  I’ve seen mallards do the same.  They put on a good show.

Cattle don’t intentionally harm birds, but they sometimes step on nests or eat all the cover camouflaging the sites.  Despite their diminutive size, I’ve watched redwing blackbird pairs harass cattle enough to keep their nests safe.  I don’t know if sandpipers would be able to mount a defense, since it seems to me that they tend toward flight rather than fight.  But I’m speaking from limited observation.  To allow this bird to coexist with the cattle, I fenced around the nest so the cattle won’t mess with it.

Putting cattle into a field with nesting birds means that inevitably some nests will be destroyed.  But I think we can accept some collateral damages and still have a system that is net-beneficial for wild birds.  Consider that some accidental destruction happens in “nature”, where wild herbivore herds trample nests.  And consider that the occasional trampling damage is minor compared to the depredations of all the animals that eat eggs (coyotes, racoons, snakes, various birds, etc.).  Migratory birds would doubtless agree with Tennyson’s bit about “Nature, red in tooth and claw”.

As long as we manage the grazing, I don’t think we’ll be deleterious.  But everything comes down to the details of our management.  We aren’t just raising cattle, we are managing a farm as a complete ecosystem.  We are managing the cattle, the grass, the water, the birds, the predators, the earthworms.  If we keep our cattle rotations fast enough, the cattle will only cover a patch of ground for a day or less, minimizing their opportunity to destroy a nest site, so the mother bird only needs to defend it for a short period.  If we stagger our grazing so that the same field isn’t grazed the same time each year we can ensure that only certain fields will be exposed to cattle during nesting periods.

While I’m sure there is plenty of room for improvement in our management, we’re heartened to note that bird populations have increased in our pastures during our tenure.

Addendum 1 June 2015:

I received a few suggestions that what I actually saw was a killdeer.  I’ll accept that as a possibility, but I’m sticking to my sandpiper story for now.  We do have a few killdeer in that same field, but the bird I saw was spotted with more brown.  Also supporting my sandpiper theory is a blog entry from a few weeks ago by a farmer a few miles from here who is an accomplished birdwatcher (albeit the confirmed sighting was an upland sandpiper).  When I moved the cattle today, the bird was not on the nest, so I couldn’t make a corroborating observation.  Again, I’m not rejecting the killdeer out of hand.  I’ll allow for a high probability of error in my observations…

If I am correct about the sandpiper, then I need to make a correction to my narrative above.  I learned that the females are polyandrous and the males sit on the nests.  So it wasn’t the mother that was leading me away from the nest.  That’s a fun fact.

5 Comments on “Spotted a Spotted Sandpiper

  1. Dave, see if this video looks like your bird. I read the Upland Sandpiper will run from the nest and freeze trying to hide in the grasses. The Killdeer is more elaborate in its distraction display, and you described it well. https://youtu.be/AJVQ5T7Wvs0 Here is a page on the Upland Sandpiper. http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/upland-sandpiper and here is the Spotted Sandpiper, which says it mainly nests near water http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/spotted-sandpiper

    • I am away for a few days, so I’ll check out the nest spot when I return. And I’d rather not terrorize it excessively, so I’d wait a while before snooping around anyway. I got a look at the bird again yesterday evening doing the cattle move at dusk (we have had to move the cattle faster than usual because we’ve had so much rain their hooves are punching up pastures). It was definitely spotted brownish on the topside, without the killdeer ring bands. This time it just flitted away without doing much of a fancy show.
      Thanks for the video. The bird in the video had a more elaborate series of feints. The bird I saw simply bolted away, dragging one wing ostentatiously for few seconds, then it took to the air.
      This nest location is in our marshiest pasture, near a stream and a small pond. I don’t think I’ll be able to capture a picture since the bird is so well camouflaged that it is invisible except when fleeing.

    • I was going to say the same thing. Most likely a Killdeer. You’ll hear them calling at night too.

      • Jerry and Edmund – I appended an addendum to the post. You may be right, I’m always on thin ice when it comes to taxonomy…

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