by Frank Keim
If you see one of these squat cinnamon-bellied sandpipers, you’re bound to say, “What the…!” This is because they look like anything but the dainty, frail looking sandpipers you usually see in the YK Delta. If you do see them in spring and summer, though, it will be mostly inland in freshwater parts of the Delta along marshy edges of lakes, ponds and rivers where the water is no more than three inches deep. That’s where they forage with their long bills, plunging and probing deep into wet mud to find small insects and aquatic invertebrate foods.
During this time, they also eat large quantities of midges and their larvae, beetles, caterpillars, worms of many kinds and small crustaceans. When you see them in flocks after they arrive on their breeding grounds in early spring they twitter at each other while feeding. This habit sets them apart from their similar cousins, Short-billed dowitchers. You may also hear their characteristic high-pitched keek call, which is different from the softer call of their lookalike cousins.
Immediately after their arrival in the YK Delta in May, the males get busy and find nesting territories so they can begin the mating game of attracting females. To accomplish this, they perform a song flight, hovering about 50-60 feet in the air over their territories with raised trembling wings. If a female shows up, there is an aerial pursuit by several singing males. It doesn’t take long for females to make their choice, and right afterward she finds a good place to build her nest in marshy vegetation near the edge of a small pond.
The nest is a shallow depression about five inches wide in the middle of a dense thicket of marsh grasses or sedges or on top of a raised hummock or tussock in a wet meadow. It is sparsely lined with bits and pieces of grasses and sedges and small leaves. Both male and female defend the area near the nest, but pairs from multiple territories feed together peacefully on small nearby ponds. There is no evidence of territoriality at all in these collective feeding areas.
Three or four olive-green, brown-spotted eggs are brooded by both sexes at first, then in later stages mostly or entirely by the male. The incubation period is 21-22 days, and as soon as the eggs hatch and the downy young dry off they all leave the nest together and follow their father to his hunting grounds.
By now, their mother has already departed the scene, leaving dad to care for the young. He does not have to feed them, however, since they already know how to find their own food. Of course, the father bird’s good example of how to hunt and what to hunt for is followed by the young. As they grow older with longer bills they copy their father’s strategy of probing deep into the mud of a marsh and, using their specially designed bills (with sensitive tactile receptors), locate their prey by touch, extract it with their tongues and scarf it down instantly.
As they mature and fledge and fatten up for fall migration, they begin moving toward the coast where they feed mostly on small freshwater worms, amphipods, copepods, and tiny crustaceans and clams. They continue to eat these foods both during their fall migration and in their wintering grounds, although they will also consume small quantities of plant matter, especially seeds. During these periods they continue to prefer freshwater environments.
Something interesting about this plump long-billed sandpiper is that most females have longer bills than the males whose bills are about the same length as those of Short-billed dowitchers. So, bill length is not the best way to distinguish between the two species. As I mentioned above, the best way to tell them apart is to listen closely to the different calls of the two species. Another way is simply to note where you find them: Long-bills in northern and western Alaska, and Short-bills in southern Alaska during the spring and summer. Where you may find both species wintering on both coasts of the U.S. and Mexico in winter, Long-bills like freshwater environments and Short-bills like to feed in saltwater habitats.
The bird’s common name, “dowitcher,” came from “Duitscher,” which is Pennsylvania Deutch (an American dialect of German) for “German” and referred to what the Duitschers called the German snipe, as opposed to English snipe, which referred to the bird we now call the Wilson’s snipe.
Its scientific name, Limnodromus scolopaceus, means “snipe-like marsh racer,” and its Spanish name, Agujeta Escolopacea (referring to its lacey looking spring plumage) is a good indicator of where many of them spend their winters (in Latin America).
It has many Yup’ik names, including the ones I found in Hooper Bay, Uluarpagneq and two other similar ones, all referring to the white uluaq-shaped patch seen on the bird’s back when it flies. I found three others in Scammon Bay (including the Lower Yukon Delta), Qayaguaq and its variations, Kayaruaq and Qayaruartalek, all referring to the same white patch that for Lower Yukon River area residents resembles a Qayaq. Other names are: Cevyirar(aq) (probably also referring to the shape of the white patch), from Nunivak Island area, and Tulikaq (meaning in part, small bird), from the Bristol Bay area.
As with so many other migrant species that nest in the YK Delta, the long-term losses of wetlands to farming and pollution in the Lower 48 have had negative impacts on the Long-billed dowitcher’s survival. Climate change also poses huge ongoing threats, and scientists predict that in only a few decades this species may lose 85% of its original nesting habitat in Alaska, including all of its nesting habitat in the YK Delta.