Wandering Tattler Tringa incana ~ Tuntussiik

by Frank Keim

original artwork by Frank Keim

If you happen to be in the Andreafsky Mountains or any other mountains in northern Alaska during the summer months you might be lucky enough to see this rare sandpiper. Or, you might see it along Bering Sea shores during the fall, although then it will look like an entirely different bird. The meaning of the Yup’ik name is a mystery except that it may have something to do with its long, stout caribou-like legs, or its walking gait as it wanders along mountain creeks inhabited by its namesake, the caribou. This is just a guess on my part, though.

Its common English name, “Wandering” comes from its wide distribution. During winter, it is found along Pacific coastlines from North America to Australia and countless islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean. In summer, it nests in the high mountains of Alaska and northwest Canada.

“Tattler” refers to the shorebird’s repetitive burbling trills similar to the sounds of the mountain streams it wades along as it searches for food, or when it alerts other birds to the presence of a predator. Quite often I used to be awakened in the morning by this bouncy telltale trill while camped next to running water in the Brooks Range. It was a reminder that I was hiking or floating through some of the wildest country on Earth.

The bird’s diet includes flies, beetles, and caddisflies, as well as small crustaceans and mollusks. And this is why they migrate there to nest such a long distance from their winter habitats along those Pacific coastlines. There is a lot to eat during the summer in the wild mountain rivers and creeks of northern Alaska and northwest Canada.

After both sexes arrive in the north country, the male gets right down to business and starts his courting displays over his chosen nesting ground with a high flight, long and straight, often taking him beyond his nesting territory, and piping his whistling song as perfectly as the one he remembered from the one he learned from his father the previous summer. This is important to charm a would-be mate watching somewhere on the sidelines, and so to ensure the survival of his species in an ever more difficult world of increasing human populations and diminishment of winter and summer nesting habitat.

When a female finally selects him as the one to carry on their genes, she chooses a nest site on the ground among stones and gravel close to a bubbling mountain stream, then scratches a shallow depression there, which she often lines with small twigs, rootlets and dry leaves. She then lays four very beautiful olive-green, brown-blotched eggs in the shape of a cross similar to the pattern of other sandpipers. Brooding is by both parents for about 23-25 days, during which they sit so motionless on their nest that I have often nearly stepped on them as I walked along their cobbled creek beds.

Within a few hours after hatching, the downy young leave the nest with both their parents. The young follow them and quickly learn how to feed themselves. The parents at first attend to them closely and brood them at night or when it’s cold, but only for a few days until their plumage begins to mature and they are able to better fend for themselves. After 1-2 weeks, usually only one of the adults is present to watch over them as they follow along the edges of crystalline mountain streams. Even when only a few days old they know how to swim well. Their age at first flight is not well known, but since it is a large sandpiper, it is probably around four weeks.

Its scientific name, Tringa incana is, Tringa, from the Greek, meaning, “torch-tail bird,” was first mentioned by Aristotle more than 2000 years ago. Incana, comes from the Latin, meaning gray or very gray. The bird’s name in Spanish is Playero vagabundo, which means vagabond shore bird. And a vagabond, it truly is, since it wanders worldwide throughout the year, a lot like the caribou do in Alaska.