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Mike Jacobs: Solitary sandpiper among unexpected bird visitors

The real surprise was a bird that evidently arrived with the south wind, the one before the snowstorm. The bird hunkered down just where a field drain enters a ditch near us, and I spotted it while I was walking off the viral blues. The bird hung around for three days. ... I think it was a solitary sandpiper.

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs

Geese overhead. Juncos underfoot. Blackbirds galore. Robins by the roadside. Tree sparrows in the ditch. A kestrel on the power line. A meadowlark on a pole. Wasn’t it a week for birds!

The list is not endless, topping out at 40 species. The number of individual birds would run into thousands if they could be counted.

The geese, blackbirds and juncos probably make up more than 90% of the whole number of birds seen at our place west of Gilby, N.D., last week. Many species were represented by just one individual.

Some unexpected species showed up. A turkey vulture passed over, swept northwestward by a strong south wind. Turkey vultures have become regular in Grand Forks, but this is the first I’ve seen at our place. Probably there have been others. The place is northwest of Grand Forks, and that’s the direction in which vultures migrate. Most of them are bound for nesting sites in southern Manitoba.

A rough-legged hawk was unexpected, too. This large hawk is an Arctic nester that I call “the November hawk,” because it shows up as the winter sets in. Some years, they stay into December before moving farther south. Their northward migration is generally more rapid. Like other Arctic nesters, the season is short and the birds are in a hurry in the springtime.


The real surprise was a bird that evidently arrived with the south wind, the one before the snowstorm. The bird hunkered down just where a field drain enters a ditch near us, and I spotted it while I was walking off the viral blues. The bird hung around for three days, finally departing when the weather cleared late that Friday afternoon, April 3. Cabin fever is recurrent, of course, so I have many opportunities to examine the bird and to watch its behavior.

I think it was a solitary sandpiper.

Solitary sandpipers aren’t uncommon, and they nest fairly close to us, beginning just where the north woods begin. This sandpiper is a forest bird. In fact, it uses abandoned nests of woodland birds to rear its own young. I’ve seen solitary sandpipers in North Dakota in the Pembina Gorge and the Turtle Mountains, both wooded areas that straddle the international border.

In “The Birds of Manitoba,” published by the provincial naturalist society, the solitary sandpiper is described as a “fairly common and widespread migrant” that “breeds in much of the northern two-thirds of the province.” The bird, the account continues, “is seldom seen before the end of April in southern Manitoba.”

So here we have a bird that is both early and outside its usual habitat. In appearance and behavior, however, it ticked all the boxes.

Starting with behavior. The bird was alone, which is unusual for sandpipers, which often move in large flocks, and sometimes very large flocks. Separateness is such a strong characteristic of this species, however, that solitary appears in both its common and its scientific names. They are nevertheless widespread, breeding across Canada’s boreal forest belt. They winter in Mexico, Central America and the western Caribbean islands, including Cuba and Jamaica.

Migrating solitary sandpipers can turn up almost anywhere in between. Often they are found in isolated ponds or small pools, and they don’t discriminate based on water quality. Even a very small bit of open water could attract such a sandpiper.

When the birds alight, they hold their wings upright before folding them against the body. When flushed, they tend to be bold, rapidly gaining height, a technique called “towering.” This bird did both those things.


The solitary sandpiper is described as a graceful bird that can appear delicate. One field guide used the word “attenuated” in its description, suggesting that the bird appears tapered. Its upper parts are brown dotted with white. The breast is streaked, not spotted, and the streaks continue onto the bird’s flanks.

I examined the bird closely on a number of occasions. All this leaves me fairly close to certain – maybe in the 90% range – that this was a solitary sandpiper. With sandpipers, however, doubt is always an option.

As it happens, the haunts and habits of the solitary sandpiper are relatively poorly known. They are simply not obvious birds, and their solitary lifestyle lends to the mystery. The birds’ breeding habits are unusual. They take over nests abandoned by forest birds, including – perhaps even favoring – robins. Most other sandpipers are ground nesters.

Much of what is known about the breeding behavior of solitary sandpipers was reported by Lew Oring, who spent a number of years teaching and researching shorebird behavior at UND. His work is credited in the American Ornithologists: Union monograph on the birds.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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