Beak of the Week – Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis)

Family: Scolopacidae

By Jon Piasecki, Houston Audubon Conservation Technician

Buff-breasted Sandpipers have one of the longest migration journeys of any bird in North America. This species winters in the southeastern region of South America and breeds in the High Arctic around the northernmost parts of Alaska and Canada. Buff-breasted Sandpipers are predominantly central flyway migrants, so the Upper Texas Coast is one of the best areas to get a glimpse of these birds during migration. Typically, the most common place to see this species is out in open, low-cut fields. However, it is also possible to see Buff-breasted Sandpipers along the beach foraging on the shoreline.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers have a very beautiful coloration pattern including a black, scaly back, yellow legs, short black bill and an overall buffy-tan color in their breast and head. In flight, their underwings are a clean, bright white with a buffy colored wing bar near the wrist. Juveniles are very similar to adults but have a more defined and detailed scaly pattern on the back.

Unlike most shorebird species, Buff-breasted Sandpipers have a lek mating system. Upon reaching the breeding grounds in the High Arctic, male sandpipers will begin to display, and the chaos ensues. During a lek, several males will form a group and begin to display for any females that are around them. There have been at least 17 different display behaviors recorded in Buff-breasted Sandpipers but the most common involves the male raising its tail and slowly waving one of its wings to flash the bright white underside for the female. They may also leap into the air similarly to a ballet dancer or figure skater. Once a male has the attention of a female, he opens his wings, puffs out his chest and stands on the tips of his feet while moving toward the female. Other males will often try to disrupt a displaying male either by being obnoxious or even by pretending to be a female sandpiper. Once a pair mates, the female will build a nest and raise the chicks without the help of the male. Females typically build nests in dry areas of the Arctic tundra and lay between 2-5 eggs.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers were once very abundant with populations estimated to be in at least the hundreds of thousands. As a result of hunting and mass conversion of prairies into agriculture fields, the population plummeted close to extinction. Today it is estimated that there are around 56,000 breeding adults but the species may once again be on the decline. We recently had a sighting of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, so be sure to keep an eye out for these beautiful birds the next time you are on the beach or near open grasslands!

 Visit our Bird Gallery to read about other Texas birds! 

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