Buff-Breasted Sandpipers: Wings of magic

[Written and illustrated by Refuge visitor Frank J. Keim.]

One June, my friend Don Ross and I trekked from the Arctic Refuge coastal plain across the Brooks Range to the headwaters of the Sheenjek River. From there we canoed down to Fort Yukon. Among our many encounters with wildlife, one of my memorable ones was with three Buff-breasted Sandpipers along a river on the Refuge coastal plain. The best way to begin this story is to quote from my journal.

June 10 -- Once again we decided to camp a little early, at 3:00 p.m. on the bank of the river. Right away we encountered Ruddy Turnstones, four of them, in action. One we saw giving chase to a jaeger, and three others pursuing a pair of Gyrfalcons. They are some macho birds! A while later three buff-breasted sandpipers showed up on the tundra, the male raising one wing then both wings, hoping in this courtship display to entice the two females watching nearby to mate with him! He was so busy doing his thing that I was able to snap a good close-up of him.

buff-breasted sandpiper by Frank KeimLater, I learned more of the details behind the courtship display of Buff-breasted Sandpipers. We had inadvertently located our camp on a lekking site of these long-distance migrants who travel each year all the way from Argentina to the Arctic Refuge coastal plain to nest and raise their young. There were probably other competing males not far away showing their own finely marbled underwings to the same females. For it is on the lekking ground that the females examine their potential partners, then select one for mating. The silver-white flash of underwing lining is apparently what brings in the females and is the primary focus of their attention. Up to six females may gather around the lekking court of a single male, taking note of the relative qualities of his wing feathers. At first, the male makes almost no sound.

In his 1989 article published in Audubon Magazine about these sandpipers, J.P. Myers describes what happens next:

As the females approach, he first hulks over, ruffling his back feathers and starting a quickened tread. Abruptly he rears back, thrusting his head up and wings out, keeping his bill parallel to the ground while marching in place. Only now does he vocalize, a subtle tic-tic-tic timed to match the slow footsteps taken in place. As a crowning gesture he draws his neck in and throws his bill back, gazing catatonically toward the Arctic sky. The females crowd forward, inspecting minute details of his underwing.

Then one of three things happens. Either the females in concert decide the male is a worthy suitor and they all stay to mate with him. Or they may steal away while he is still in full display to check out the underwing qualities of another male on an adjoining part of the lek. This is apparently what happens most until finally the females make their decision. Frequently, however, something happens that totally disrupts the best nuptial efforts of the displaying male. Suddenly a neighboring male may burst down upon his competitor, mounting and viciously pecking him on neck and head, thereby breaking up the courtship. The interloper then flies back to his own lekking territory followed post haste by all of the female inspectors. There the same display pattern begins again until it too may be interrupted by the original male or by yet another competitor lurking nearby. The females move back and forth from one exhibiting male to another as their wedding parties are crashed. Finally, at some point a balance is struck and the females all mate by turn with the excited male. So it is that at least one male's heroic efforts will not go unrequited.

Male "buffies," as some people refer to them, may work awfully hard to curry the favor of the females, but when it comes to later responsibilities, they have it easy compared to male Spotted Sandpipers, for example, who have to do serious incubation duty after the eggs are laid. In fact, Buff-breasted males do none of this work. Neither do they help build the nest or rear their progeny. By the time the eggs hatch they are well on their way back to their wintering grounds in the marshes and grasslands of southern South America.

The female builds her nest on the ground in a shallow depression in dry mossy or grassy tundra. Within hours after the four precocial young break through their egg casings, they are on their feet and away. Their nest is too much of a liability for them to remain there any longer. In just a few days the young are on their own and picking insects and spiders off the surface of the tundra. Only during the very first days are they dependent upon their mother for warmth and protection from predators. Even before they learn to fly with complete competence their mother has departed for southern climes. This means that when they finally do master flight and build up their fat reserves the scarcely month-old juvenile sandpipers must migrate south on their own, negotiating the direction, distance and dangers of the long journey without parental guidance.

Buffies may have a simple nickname, but their scientific name is anything but simple. Tryngites subruficollis means "somewhat reddish-necked sandpiper-like bird." The Inupiat Eskimo people, who are its nearest human neighbors, simply call it, Aklaktaq, or "spotted bird."

Unfortunately, buffies have a tiny world population -- only about 15,000 birds. Their numbers were drastically reduced in the late 1800's by market hunters, and today conversion of their upland winter habitat to agriculture is a continuing problem. In addition, their nesting habitat in the Arctic is on the drier coastal terrain where industrial facilities tend to be constructed. For these reasons, Buff-breasted Sandpipers have been placed on the Alaska Audubon WatchList. This list identifies birds that have significantly declining populations and serves to alert land owners, industry, resource managers, and the public to take steps to prevent populations from becoming threatened or endangered with extinction.