Birding: Benicia’s Spotted Sandpipers

Photos by Kyle Gerner

The grass is green, the wind is gentle, and the sun is setting a little later than it did yesterday. I’m walking along the trail, admiring the orange glow ripening behind the Crockett Bridge, when I notice a subtle, rhythmic tapping out of the corner of my eye. It’s a tiny gray bird, flitting across the rocks between me and the Carquinez Strait. It moves in sporadic bursts of excitement, bouncing its tail two or three times with every pause. Between bounces, it notices me, blinking silently as it accepts my presence into its evening foraging foray. Quickly, it jumps to the next rock, moves around the back and faces me for the first time.

A totally different-looking bird is revealed!

The feathers on its chest are white, interspersed with brown, eye-catching spots. While I’ve been an avid birder for years, it is rare for me to see such a collection of spots on any bird, especially one this small. Even in the fading light, it’s easy to see how special this little guy is. I know it can only be a Spotted Sandpiper.

The Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) is common throughout the U.S., and I’ve seen them in both urban and rural areas, wherever there is water. Salinity and turbidity don’t seem to matter to these shorebirds, so long as invertebrates are readily available for their next meal. Unlike Plovers, Sanderlings, and their other small, shore-dwelling kin, Spotted Sandpipers tend to go about their business in solitude, at least until their summer breeding season.

According to the Audubon Field Guide online, Benicia lies at the far corner of the Spotted Sandpiper’s year-round range.They tend to breed in the north and winter in the south, and Northern California is a rough midpoint where some are almost always either wintering, breeding, or on the move. Spotted Sandpipers typically breed between the months of May and August, so they’ll need to make preparations in March and April. During early spring in Benicia, adult Spotted Sandpipers, both male and female, will grow out the plumage they’ll need to attract mates. This consists of a smattering of small brown spots running from their throat, down their chest, and along the underside of their tail. 

But what about that bouncing motion that caught my eye in the first place?

Both Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology refer to this behavior as “teetering,” which they say still puzzles the scientific community. The Cornell Lab’s Spotted Sandpiper page indicates that studies haven’t identified a purpose for this unique behavior, though the birds do seem to quit when they’re alarmed, courting, or feeding. As far as I’m concerned, the birds don’t need a reason, so long as they embrace their uniqueness!

And you can embrace their uniqueness too! I have seen many Spotted Sandpipers in Benicia—at the harbor, the state park, Lake Herman, and the numerous public beaches. I’ve been able to find at least a few here throughout most of the year, but I find their plumage to be the most exciting in March and April. Look for water, then look for small bouncing tails, and then look for the spots. Happy birding!