Solitary Sandpiper Iisuruaq/Iiyuaraq/Tuntussiik

by Frank Keim

original artwork by Frank Keim

As its name indicates, the Solitary sandpiper likes its solitude. It is a loner from spring to spring and from Alaska and Northern Canada where it nests all the way down to its winter home in the Amazon basin of South America. It’s also fairly easy to tell apart from other similar sandpipers such as the Lesser yellowlegs. It has a large bold eye-ring, a black and white speckled tail, shorter darker legs, blackish underwings, and it trembles its tail and feet as it hunts for food.

Its Yup’ik names Iiyuaraq (Hooper Bay/Chevak) and Iisuraar(aq)/Iisuruaq (Scammon Bay/Yukon) all relate to the large eye rings, which from a distance may look like big eyes. Hence, I believe the name translated into English must mean something like, “able to hunt well because of its big eyes.” It’s other name in Scammon Bay, Tuntussiik or Tuntussiikaq, is the same name given to the Greater and Lesser yellowlegs and probably has something to do with their long caribou (tuntu)-like legs.

Because they winter so far south, they don’t arrive in the LYK Delta until the first week of May. Even so, since they nest in mixed marsh and forest (taiga), you would probably only see them in spring and early summer in the interior of the Delta close to the trees. However, during their spring and late summer migrations, both north and south, you might run across them along the coast.

Solitary sandpiper males return first in spring to a spruce-birch wooded area next to freshwater ponds, lakes, creeks and muskeg bogs. Just after they get back, they immediately establish territories on their chosen breeding grounds. Conflicts over territories are resolved by threat postures, but if a fight does start it could include some serious pecking until the loser gives up.

Males also display over their nesting grounds by rising slowly a few yards into the air on quivering wings, spreading their tail feathers, singing, and then slowly descending to the same spot. If, after thorough inspection, a female shows earnest interest in him, he increases the fervor of his display, and after landing holds up a single wing before and after mating. Afterward both partners perform a slow, undulating flight that ends with a musical hovering over the nesting area.

Among the world’s 85 sandpiper species, Iisuruaq is one of only two of the species that prefers to lays its eggs in tree nests instead of on the ground. So, while doing their mating displays the males check out old songbird cup nests that might have potential, especially those of robins, Rusty blackbirds and Canada jays, that are located a few yards above the ground on the trunk of a small tree. (Just after finishing this article, while some friends and I were birding, we found just such a nest with four eggs in it.)

The female makes the final selection of the nest, which she will then improve by removing the old lining then relining it with fresh materials. She usually lays four greenish blue brown-splotched eggs, which she places in the shape of a cross, and broods, with some possible help from her mate, for 23-24 days. Within hours after their simultaneous hatching, the downy chicks jump down to the soft ground under their tree and are immediately ready to leave the neighborhood with their parents and start feeding on their own. Precocial is the word that describes this behavior.

They follow their parents’ lead to food sources in the area, and like them they eat small insects, their larvae and crustaceans and even smaller mollusks, amphibians and minnows by tiptoeing along muddy shores or in shallow water. They learn to hunt by sight, seizing their prey with their bill and only rarely probe into the mud like so many other sandpipers do. They sometimes copy their parents’ strategy of vibrating one foot in the water and so spur their prey to make a move and be caught. They will also hunt on dry land for insects and other food critters like small grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles and flies.

As in the Yup’ik language, there a few other common English names for this sandpiper: American green sandpiper, American wood sandpiper, barnyard plover, black snipe, green sandpiper, peet-weet, solitary tattler, wood tattler and wood sandpiper. Its Spanish name is Andarrios solitario, and its French name is Chevalier solitaire. Its scientific moniker, Tringa solitaria, is from the Greek, Tryngas, (the name first used by Aristotle almost 2500 years ago) and means, white-rumped waterbird who prefers living alone (solitary).

Note: I never cease to be amazed at how the old Yup’ik bird observations are so similar to those of our Western scientists. Over thousands of years the Yup’ik people have noticed the similarities of the Greater and Lesser yellowlegs to the Wandering tattler and Solitary sandpiper, giving them all the same name, among many others, just as Western scientists have placed these four birds in the same genus, Tringa. This has also been true of so many other aspects of their traditional culture. Their relationship with the natural world has been key to their survival through the millenia in spite of some very hard times.