Once called the Red-backed Sandpiper, the Dunlin in breeding plumage is very distinctive. Despite being restricted to arctic breeding grounds and coastal wintering areas during much of the year, the Dunlin can be seen during migration across much of the continent.
Dunlin are especially vulnerable to predators during the winter when they gather in large flocks. Merlins, Peregrine Falcons, and Short-eared Owls all take a toll. When threatened by one of these aerial predators, Dunlin fly rapidly and erratically in tight-knit flocks in an effort to escape.
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Description of the Dunlin
The Dunlin is a medium, rather stocky shorebird with a black patch on the belly and a long, decurved bill. Breeding birds are reddish above. Length: 8 in. Wingspan: 17 in.
The sexes are similar.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter birds are grayish above and lack the black belly patch.
Juveniles have boldly marked upperparts and a white-speckled black belly patch.
Dunlins inhabit beaches, tidal flats, and tundra.
Dunlins eat insects and small invertebrates.
Dunlins forage by gleaning from the surface of the water, or by probing in mud.
Dunlins breed in arctic Canada and Alaska. They winter along the coasts of the U.S. The population is not well measured, but appears to be declining.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Dunlin.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History.
Rather cold tolerant for a shorebird, Dunlin winter well to the north along the Atlantic Coast.
Male Dunlins perform a display flight over their territories.
The song is a long trill. The flight call is a harsh “reev”.
Western Sandpipers are smaller,have a shorter bill.
Rock Sandpipers have a black patch higher on the breast.
The Dunlin’s nest is a scrape lined with leaves and grass.
Number: Usually lay 4 eggs.
Color: Olive or buffy with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 20-23 days, and leave the nest shortly after hatching, though associating with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Dunlin
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Dunlin – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
PELIDNA ALPINA ALPINA (Linnaeus)
The well-known European dunlin has occurred occasionally as a straggler on our eastern coasts, Massachusetts and New York. It has probably occurred here more often than is known, for it closely resembles our red-backed sandpiper, especially in winter plumage. There is no reason why it should not occur here more often, for it is now known to breed regularly on the east coast of Greenland.
Thayer and Bangs (1914) thought, at one time, that we should recognize three races of the dunlin, which they designated as follows:
Pelidna alpine alpina (Linn.), western Europe. Small, with shortest, straightest bill upper parts darker with less reddish ; heavily spotted (sometimes almost streaked) with dusky below, between throat and black breast patch.
Pelidna alpina pacifica Coues. North America. Much larger, with much longer, more curved bill; upper parts palor with much more reddish; much less heavily spotted with dusky below, between throat and black breast patch.
Pelidna alpina sakhalina (Vieill.) East Siberia. Size and length and shape of bill intermediate between that of the other two forms; colors much paler than in either; upper parts very pale reddish, much mixed with gray; back of neck and top of head nearly wholly pale gray; below very slightly spotted with dusky, between throat and black breast patch (much less so, even than in pacifica).
Recently, Mr. Bangs tells me, he has come to the conclusion that the Siberian bird should not be separated from the American. as the characters are too slight and rather intermediate. This seems like a wise decision, as the naming of intermediates is undesirable.
Much has been published on the habits of the dunlin, but, as they differ but little from those of our birds, it seems superfluous to write its full life history.
Nesting: Comparatively few of the great hosts of dunlins which visit England in fall and winter breed on the mainland of Great Britain. Macgillivray (1852) gives a good account of their nesting habits in Scotland, as follows:
The dunlins, in fact, breed in great numbers on the heaths of many parts of Scotland and its larger islands, where they may be found scattered in the haunts selected by the golden plovers, with which they are so frequently seen in company that they have popularly obtained the name of plovers’ pages. Sometimes about the middle of April, but always before that of May, they are seen dispersed over the moors In pairs like the birds just named, which at this season they greatly resemble In manners. From this period until the end of August none are to be found along the shores of the sea, instead of searching which, they now seek for Insects and worms, in the shallow pools, soft ground, and by the edges of lakes and marshes. The male frequently flies up to a person intruding upon his haunts, and sometimes endeavors to entice him away by feigning lameness.
Rev. Henry II. Slater (1898) says that the nest “is usually in a tussock of grass, a roughly made hollow, inartistically lined with grass, but often carefully concealed in the herbage.”
A. L. V. Manniche (1910) found the dunlin a common breeding bird on the northeast coast of Greenland. He writes:
The nests are most frequently built on hillocks with long grass. I found, however, not seldom nests of dunlins on small islets covered with short grass, but always near to or surrounded by shallow water. The dunlin’s nest Is often placed on similar spots, and has the same exterior as that of th~ phalarope, but It can easily be distinguished, as the bottom of the dunlin’s nest Is always lined with a few withered leaves of ~9alir arctica, while the phalarope uses bent straws as layer for Its eggs. On spots where many dunlins nest several newly scratched but half-finished nests may always be found; they are probably left because the birds have found the ground too wet. The dunlins like to nest on moors and bogs partly irrigated by melted snow streaming down from the rocks. On such places I found many nests with eggs and newborn downy young, which were lying close together in broods carefully guarded by the old female, on isolated larger hillocks surrounded by the ice-cold snow water. When the flood of melting snow Is unusually strong, such localities may be completely inundated, and then not only the eggs but also the frail young ones, which are not yet able to save themselves by swimming through the cold water to dry spots, will be destroyed.
Eggs: The great amount of variation in the beautiful eggs of the dunlin is well illustrated in Frank Poynting’s (1895) fine colored plate of 12 eggs. Herbert Massey (1913) gives a better description of the eggs than I can give, so I quote him, as follows:
The eggs of this species resemble those of G. gallinago very closely in color, but in comparing a series (74 sets or 296 eggs) with that of G. gallinago one is struck by the greater proportion of the lighter ground colors in the dualin, the very deep olives and the very dark browns being almost absent. On the other hand, the beautiful light blue-green and the pale buff are rare in G. gallinago. The surface spots are chiefly two shades of brown, a rich red and a dark brown, with, in many cases, spots of violet gray. In T. alpina it is rare to find the two shades of brown in the same egg, as is often the case with G. gallinago. The markings are very varied, some eggs dusted all over with tiny specks, others with specks and fair-sized spots, and again others with great blotches of color, chiefly at the larger end. The pattern markings on the eggs of the same set are often very dissimilar. Many of the eggs of this species show the spiral arrangement of the spots. The eggs are very glossy, and on this account have a brighter appearance than eggs of G. gallinago. I have only one set entirely without gloss.
The number of eggs is normally four, occasionally only three, and as many as five and even six have been found in a nest. The measurements of 100 eggs, furnished by Rev. F. C. R. Jourdain, average 34.3 by 24.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 38.3 by 25.4, 35 by 25.8, 31.3 by 23.2, and 32 by 23 millimeters.
Youmg: Incubation is shared by both sexes and requires 22 days. Macgillivray (1852) says of the young:
Like those of the golden plover and lapwing, they leave the nest immediately after exclusion from the egg, run about, and when alarmed conceal Themselves by sitting close to the ground and remaining motionless. If at this period a person approaches their retreat, the male especially, but frequently the female also, flies up to meet the intruder and uses the same artifices for deceiving him as many other birds of this family. After they are able to shift for themselves the young remain several weeks on the moors with their parents, both collecting into small flocks, which are often Intermingled with those of the golden plover, and often in the evenings uniting into larger. They rest at night on the smoother parts of the heath, and both species, when resting by day, either stand or lie on the ground. When one advances within a hundred yards of such a flock it Is pleasant to see them stretch up their wings, as If preparing for flight, utter a few low notes, and immediately stand on the alert or run a short way; hut at this season they are not at all shy.
Seton Gordon (1915), after giving a charming account of the breeding haunts of the dunlin in Scotland, has this to say about the solicitude of a devoted mother.
It was about this time that I saw the hen in precisely the same locality as before. She showed much more anxiety than the cock, uttering almost incessantly two alarm notes as she walked round me. One of these notes was the characteristic trill, unlike, I think, any other cry In the bird world; the other, which appeared to be the note of extra alarm, was a harsh cry reminding me much of the alarm note of the lesser tern. In order to observe the effect, I called several times, imitating the cry of one of her chicks. The effect was striking and Instantaneous; the bird rushed up in alarm and literally rolled herself about on the ground with feathers ruffled. She, indeed, presented such an appearance that It was quite impossible to see her head or feet emerging from the disheveled bundle into which the rolled herself. Evidently her tactics were quite different: considerably less elegant, but perhaps equally forcible: to those used by the dotterel under similar circumstances. After a time she began to realize that her deception was preduciag no effect on the object of her mis. trust, and moved anxiously round me.
Plumages: In natal down the young dunlin is similar to the young red-backed sandpiper, but is paler in color, more buffy, and less rufous. The subsequent molts and plumages are similar to those of our American bird. They are well described in Witherby’s (1920) Handbook.
Food: Macgillivray (1852) made some careful observations on the feeding habits of dunlins, which are well worth quoting, as follows:
Being in a muddy place, which probably afforded a good supply of food, they did not run much, but yet moved quickly about, with their legs a little bent, the body horizontal, the head a little declined, and the bill directed forward toward the ground at an angle of about 45 deg I observed that they seemed In general merely to touch the surface, but also sometimes to introduce their bill into the mud for about a fourth of its length; but this was always with a rapid tapping and somewhat wriggliag movement, and not by thrusting it In sedately. This flock having flown away, I observed another of about 12 indIviduals alight at a little distance on the other side of the mill stream. Being very intent on tapping the mud, they allowed me to approach wIthin 10 paces, so that I could see them very distinctly. I examined the marks made by them in the mud. Although it was soft, very few footmarks were left, hut the place was covered with numberless small holes made by their hills, and forming little groups, as If made by the Individual birds separately. Of these impressions very many were mere hollows not much larger than those on a thimble, and not a twelfth of an inch deep; others scarcely perceptible, while a few were larger, extending to a depth of two-twelfths; and here and there one or two to the depth of nearly half an inch. On scraping the mud, I could perceive no worms or shells. It is thus clear that they search by gently tapping, and it appears that they discover the object of their search rather by the kind of resistance which it yields than by touch like that of the human skin.
Witherby’s (1020) Handbook says that the food is mainly animal and includes mollusks, worms, crustaceans (shrimps and sandhoppers), insects (beetles, flies, etc.), and spiders.
Behavior: The habits of the European dunlin seem to be the same as those of our bird. It is equally tame and confiding, unless shot at too much, and it has the same habit of flying in large, closely bunched flocks. John T. Nichols tells me that some that he saw near Liverpool in September, “when on the ground, moved about very actively for the most part (contrasted with the sluggishness of the redback as we know it in migration) and presented a low, hunch-shouldered figure.” Abel Chapman (1924) says:
On one occasion, on May 14, seeing three small waders floating on the mirror~ like surface of the tide and quite 200 yards offshore, we punted out to them in full anticipation of having at last fallen in with phalaropes. Curiously, the trio proved to be dunlins, a species I can not recall having seen contentedly swimming in deep water on any other occasion.
Breeding range: Northern Europe: Iceland, the Faroes, British Isles, northern coasts of Germany, northern Russia east to Kolguev, Spitzbergen, and probably Nova Zembla. South to Holland and rarely to northern Spain and northern Italy. Replaced by one or more other forms in Siberia, to which Asiatic migrants probably belong.
Winter range: Great Britain, Madeira, the Canaries, the Mediterranean, northern and eastern Africa as far south as Zanzibar, the Red Sea, and perhaps India.
Casual records: Accidental in North America; Shinnecock Bay, Long Island, New York, September 15, 1892; Chatham, Massachusetts, August 11, 1900. It has probably been many times overlooked.
Egg dates: Orkney Islands: 50 records, May 12 to June 27 25 records, May 20 to June 2. Iceland: 16 records, May 18 to June 16; 8 records, June 3 to 12.
PELIDNA ALPINA SAKHALINA (Vieillot)
Although this sandpiper is certainly red-backed enough to deserve the name, it seems to me that American dunlin would be a better name, as it is only subspecifically distinct from the well-known European dunlin. The doubtful question as to whether a third subspecies should be recognized on the Pacific coast has been referred to under the preceding form.
Spring: It is a hardy bird and perhaps a lazy bird for it winters farther north than most of its tribe and makes shorter migrations than any of the waders that breed in Arctic regions. From its winter range well within the United States it migrates northward from Florida and the Carolinas along the Atlantic coast to the Middle States, rarely to New England, through the Great Lakes region, and along the west coast of Hudson Bay to its summer home on the barren grounds. C. J. Pennock tells me he has seen it in Florida, Wakulla County, as late as May 26; I found it very abundant and in fine spring plumage on the coastal islands of South Carolina on May 22 and 23; and I have seen it near Corpus Christi, Texas, as late as May 29. These are all late dates, however, for the migration starts in April and is generally completed in May. A single bird which I saw on the coast of Louisiana on June 22, 1910, was a nonbreeding loiterer. A. G. Lawrence and C. G. Harrold both record it in their notes as common in Manitoba from the middle to the last of May (12 to 29). William Rowan, however, finds it rare in Alberta.
There is a heavy northward migration along the Pacific coast. In some notes sent to me by D. E. Brown from Grays Harbor, Washington, he says:
This bird, next to the western sandpiper, was by far the most abundant of all the shore birds. It was noted in immense flocks the day of my arrival, May 8, and was very common when I left, May 24. Mixed flocks of this species and western sandpipers must have contained 6,000 or 7,000 birds.
Herbert W. Brandt in his manuscript notes says:
The red-backed sandpiper is one of the most abundant shore birds inhabiting the Hooper Bay region, confining Itself almost entirely to the low-lying flats. The Eskimos first reported this hardy species on May 10 and two days later we collected our first specimen at Point Dall. They were common in loose flocks by May 15 and abundant by May 20. At that time they were often associated with the Aleutian sandpiper, to which, in the field, they bear a marked resemblance. Soon after the later date the flocks disintegrated Into mated couples and they then repaired to their lowland breeding haunts.
Courtship: Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) gives an attractive account of the courtship of this species, as follows:
Soon after they arrive in spring they are engaged in pairing, and the males may be seen upon quivering wings flying after the female and uttering a musical, trilling note, which falls upon the ear like the mellow tinkle of large water drops falling rapidly into a partly filled vessel. Imagine the sounds thus produced by the water run togetber into a steady and rapid trill some 5 to 10 seconds in length, and the note of this sandpiper is represented. It is not loud but has a rich full tone, difficult to describe, but pleasant to hear among the discordant notes of the various waterfowl whose hoarse cries arise on all sides. As the lover’s suit approaches its end the handsome suitor becomes exalted, and in his moments of excitement he rises 15 or 20 yards, and, hovering on tremulous wings over the object of his passion, pours forth a perfect gush of music, until he glides back to earth exhausted, but ready to repeat the effort a few minutes later. The female coyly retreats before the advances of the male, but after various mishaps each bird finds its partner for the summer and they start off house hunting in all the ardor of a rising honeymoon.
Mr. Brandt in his manuscript notes describes it a little differently, thus:
The red-hacked sandpiper, often called the American dunlin, arrives in flocks, the individuals of which are apparently not all mated. A female will Jump up and be Immediately pursued by two to five males, and as they all twist about, in and out, twittering all the time, the alternate flashing of their reddish backs and black lower parts seems like the signals of the telegraphic code. The males appear never to catch the females, but to try to keep as close to them as possible. When they alight again in the flock whence they started they at once resume feeding without further dIsplay. The thrilling song of this dainty bird Is delIvered while hovering with quivering wing beats~ in mid-air. It appears as If both male and female carry on the vocal effort, which sounds something lIke the cheery tinkling of ice In a glass, and ends with a real lover’s note dear, dear, dear. This is repeated again and again and is one of the pleasant characteristic songs of the marshy grass-woven flats, where the discords of waterfowl prevail. After the fastest male has captured his elusive ‘sweetheart the two retire to their chosen place on the flats to take up their more serious duties. Here the female lays her eggs, often in a situation that is moist, and never very far from a small pond or slough.
Nesting: The same observer says of the nest:
The home of the red-backed sandpiper Is almost always found on a dry eminence in the widespread grassy tidelands, where, near some pool under the damp matted vegetation of the previous year, sufficient concealment Is afforded. Here in a mere depression in the ground, still frozen underneath, a fragile nest is hurriedly made of dry grass stems and filled, rather than lined, with the tiny crisp leaves of the berry-bearing plants, that are deposited by the flood tides of autumn in this area. The range of measurements of 25 nests is: Inside diameter, 3’A to 4 inches; inside depth 2 to 3 inches; total depth, 3 to 5 Inches.
This sandpiper Is among the early nesters, we having taken the first completed set of eggs on May 29, while by June 1 we had discovered 75. The middle of June found the downy young bursting forth, dainty creatures clad in black and brown with markings similar to those of the other sandpiper chicks.
Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1900) found this species breeding on the Arctic coast of Alaska, about 20 miles northeast of Cape Prince of Wales, on June 2T and 28; he writes:
The birds were found scattered out on the tundras whence they could be flushed from their nests or from where they had been feeding. One nest was a cup-shaped cavity slightly lined with grasses and sunk into the top of a hummock of moss surrounded by marshy ground. The two others found were similarly located except that they were embedded in clumps of grass, and mostly hidden from view by the surrounding blades. Each nest contained four eggs. One was fresh but the other two were considerably incubated.
Prof. Wells XV. Cooke (1912) made the statement that this species has two breeding areas “separated by nearly 1,500 miles of Arctic coast, from Point Barrow to the Boothia Peninsula,” where “there seems to be no certain record of the occurrence of the red-backed sandpiper.” This is far from true, for it is well known to breed there and eggs have been taken at many places along the Arctic coast.
Eggs: Herbert W. Brandt (Mss.) describes his series of 120 eggs of this sandpiper very well, as follows:
The four eggs of the red-backed sandpiper, which is their complement, are very handsome and show more variation than the eggs of most of the other shore birds breeding in the Hooper Bay region. In shape they are subpyriform to ovate pyriform and rest amid the leafy nest lining with the small ends together often so placed that the sitting bird during incubation touches only the larger ends. The shell is not as strong as many shore-bird eggs of the same size but they are not fragile by any means and they have considerable luster. As was true of many of the limicoline eggs found along that Bering Sen coast, there were two general types of ground color: the one, the greenish, that predominated by a ratio of about 15 to 1: and the other was the brownish type. The ground color ranges from “pale glaucous green ‘~: that is the most common type: to “glaucous green,” while the brownish-tinged eggs shade from “olive buff” to “dark olive buff.” The surface markings are conspicuous and vary greatly, for on some types the spots are small and well scaltered over the eggs; on others they nre large, irregular, and hold; while on still other specimens they are confluent on the larger end and form a blotch that completely decorates that part of the egg. These spots are Irregular in shape, but are inclined to be elongated with their axis twisting to the right, so that when a series of eggs is viewed looking toward the larger end, the spots produce a clockwise spiral. Some of these spots are more twisted than others, but on a few eggs there are no spiral tendencies at all. The surface spots are quite variable in color, dependent largely on the thickness of the pigment deposited, for where the latter is thin the true color is observable, but when the decoration is liberal, the blot becomes opaque and the color is lost. These spots range from “auburn” and “raw umber” to “chestnut brown” and “blackish brown.” The underlying spots are well hidden by the boldness of the surface markings and inclined to be small and regular and are often more or less numerous. Their shades are delicate, ranging from “pallid gray” to “mouse gray.” An occasional egg exhibits scattering Insignificant additional markings of deep “blackish brown.”
The measurements of 145 eggs average 36.3 by 25.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 40.1 by 25.9, 39.2 by 26.5, 34 by 25, and 34.5 by 23.5 millimeters.
Young: Both sexes incubate and are rather close sitters, as well as devoted and bold in the defense of their young. The period of incubation is probably the same as for the European clunlin, 22 days. John Murdoch (1885) says:
Both parents share in the work of incubation, though we happened to obtain more males than females with the eggs. The young are pretty generally hatched by the first week in July, and both adults and young keep pretty well out of sight till the 1st of August, when they begin to show about the lagoons and occasionally about the beach, many of the young birds still downy about the head. The autumn flight of young birds appears about the middle of August, assocIating with the young A. maculota and 31. griseus scolopaceu8, in good-sized flocks, particularly about the pools on the high tundra below Cape Smythe. They coutinue plenty in these localities, sometimes appearing along the beach, for about a week, when the greater part of them depart, leaving only a few stragglers thnt stay till the first few days of September.
Plumages: The downy young red-backed is much paler and more huffy than that of the least sandpiper. The crown, back, wings, and thighs are variegated with brownish black, “ochraceous tawny” and “hazel,” except at the base of the down on the back, there is no rich, deep brown; the above parts are quite thickly sprinkled, especially on the back, with minute, round spots, terminal tufts of pale buff; a distinct stripe of these nearly encircles the posterior half of the crown. The black of the crown extends nearly to the bill and there is a black loral stripe; the rest of the head and a band across the lower throat are “warm buff.” The rest of the under parts are white. The nape is a grizzly mixture of dull buff and dusky.
The juvenal plumage, as seen in Alaska in August, is strikingly handsome and quite distinctive. The feathers of the crown are dusky, edged with “ochraceous tawny “; the sides of the head and nape are “drab-gray,” streaked with dusky; the feathers of the back are black, broadly edged with three colors in different areas, ochraceous tawny,” ” hazel,” and huffy white; the scapulars are black, edged with “light ochraceous buff”; the wing coverts are gray, tipped with pale buff; the rump and upper tail coverts are “hair brown” to “drab”; the breast is tinged with grayish and pale buff and streaked with dusky; the throat and rest of the under parts are white, conspicuously and more or less heavily spotted with dusky on the sides of the belly. This beautiful plumage is worn for only a short time and is molted before the birds leave their northern breeding grounds. The postjuvenal molt begins in August and is generally finished before October; it involves nearly all of the body plumage, nearly all of the scapulars, and some of the tertials, but not the rump, upper tail coverts, or flight feathers.
In first winter plumage young birds are much like adults, but the ashy brown upper parts are usually somewhat paler, and they can always be recognized by the juvenal wing coverts and a few retained scapulars and tertials. A partial prenuptial molt, similar to that of the adult, produces a first nuptial plumage, in which young birds can be distinguished only by the retained juvenal wing coverts. In fresh plumage the black belly patch is veiled with white tips, which soon wear away and leave this area clear black.
The first postnuptial molt of young birds and the cox’responding molt of adults produce adult winter plumages. The molt is complete and begins in July or even late in June; the wings are apparently molted first in July, and are entirely renewed before the birds start to migrate; the body molt begins in August and lasts through September; there are usually traces of t.he old nuptial plumage left when the birds arrive here on migration. The partial prenuptial molt of adults comes in April and May and involves the body plumage, but not all the scapulars or rump or wing coverts.
Food: Red-backed sandpipers obtain their food on the ocean beaches at low tide, on sandy flats or on mud flats, often feeding in company with sanderlings, or with ot.her small shore birds. Some writers have referred to them as nervous and active running about in a lively manner while feeding, but I have usually found them rather sluggish and inactive at such times, easily approached and unsuspicious. Their food consists of small mollusks, sand fleas, and other small crustaceans, amphipods, flies and other insects and their larvae, diving and other aquatic beetles, marine worms, and occasionally a few seeds of aquatic plants. They are apt to gather where fish cleanings and other offal are thrown out, to feed on the flies and other insects that abound there. Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1905) writes:
In feeding they frequently plunge the bill, slightly open to its base In the soft sand or mIMI. appear to work it about and when successful draw forth an amphipod or a worm. Several times on one occasion I saw one draw a worm to the water close at hand as if to wash it before swallowing it. On another occasion a couple of dunlins were so tame that It was possible to approach within 5 feet of them. They were diligently probing In the sandy mud, wading in water up to their bellies. At this depth it was necessary for them to immerse their heads entirely, and I could see them shut their eyes as they went under water. Whether the eyes were afterwards opened or not I am unable to say. When disturbed they flew but a short way, and if they happened to alight In water too deep for their legs, they swam readily, as do all shore birds. When disturbed the dunhin utters a short kuk. Their call note Is distinctive, and resembles somewhat the word purre, by which name the European species Is called. The note is plaintive and sometimes melodious, and recalls, without its harshness, the cry of the common tern.
Behavior: The earlier writers refer to this as an active, restless bird. Audubon (1840) says:
There seems to be a kind of impatience in this bird that prevents It from remaining any length of time in the same place, and you may see It scarcely alighted on a sand bar, fly off without any apparent reason to another, where it settles, runs for a few moments, and again starts off on wing.
Giraud (1844) writes:
It is a restless active bird and gleans its food with great nimbleness, and seems to be fond of continually changing its position. Soon after alighting they collect together and make a short excursion over the ~vater, again alighting a short distance from where they had previously taken wing. During their aerial excursions, when whirling about, they crowd so close together that many are killed at a single shot. On one of these occasions Mr. Brasher informs me that he killed 52 by discharging both barrels into a flock. This number is greater than I ever before heard of; hut from 10 to 15 is not unusual.
Wilson (1832), writing when shore birds were abundant, says of this flocking habit:
These birds, in conjunction with several others, sometimes collect together in such flocks, as to seem, at a distance, a large cloud of thick smoke, varying in form and appearance every instant, while it performs its evolutions in air. As this cloud descends and courses along the shores of the ocean, with great rapidity, in a kind of waving, serpentine flight, alternately throwing its dark and white plumage to the eye, it forms a very grand and interesting appear. ance. At such times the gunners make prodigious slaughter among them; while, as the showers of their companions fall, the whole body often alight, or descend to the surface with them, till the sportsman is completely satiated with destruction.
Suckley (1860) found them equally abundant in the Puget Sound region, for he writes:
Early in the season, before they have been rendered wild by being much shot at, I have observed that upon a volley being fired into a flock the unharmed birds in terror sweep around in several circles, and hovering “buacft,” as the sportsmen say, over their wounded companions, and sometimes reahight with them. At the moment of their hovering in a compact body over the wounded is the time generally seized to fire the reserved barrels; two or three shots will frequently bring down from 30 to 60 birds; and I have known one instance where an officer of the Army bagged 06 birds from one discharge of his fowling piece. After being flred into once or twice the flocks, learning to avoid sympathizing with their dead and wounded, become shy and wary.
Several observers have remarked on the remarkable tameness of the red-backed sandpiper. William Brewster (1925) spent two hours photographing five of these birds within 8 feet of his boat on an open mud flat; they paid no attention to his movements, the click of the camera, or the flapping of the focusing cloth; “during much of the time they were apparently asleep;” he even had difficulty in frightening them away until he splashed water on them. I have frequently walked up to within a few feet of feeding birds and had some difficulty in inducing them to fly more than a short distance.
Their eyesight is keen enough, however, as shown by an incident related by W. E. Saunders (1896). A bird which had been feeding near him for about an hour, stopped, looked steadily, as if afraid, and “shrank down flat on the ground, where he lay perfectly still.” After some time Mr. Saunders discovered an eagle approaching, so far away that he could hardly see him. After the eagle had passed the sandpiper resumed his feeding.
Voice: The red-backed sandpiper is usually silent when on the ground. John T. Nichols, in his notes, calls the “flushing note of a single bird a fine chit-i-it. Its flight note is an emphatic nearwhistled chu or ckru, resembling some of the calls of the pectoral and semipalmated sandpipers, but quite diagnostic when one is sufficiently familiar with it. This call may also be phonetically suggested by the syllable purre, which is a colloquial name of the European dunlin, of which it is a race.”
Doctor Townsend (1905) says: “The note is plaintive and sometimes melodious, and recalls, without its harshness, the cry of the common tern.” Mr. Murdoch (1885) and others have noticed that the rolling call, heard on the breeding grounds in June, “reminds one of the notes of the frogs in New England in spring.” A bird which Mr. Brewster (1925) flushed “uttered a peculiarly mellow tweet-twel-l-l-ut just as it rose on wing.”
Field marks: In spring plumage the American dunlin deserves the name red backed, for its back is even redder than that of its European relative; at that season the black patch on the belly is very conspicuous, even at a long distance, so that the species is easily recognized. It is a short-legged, rather stocky bird, about the size of the sanderling, and can be identified in the fall by its rather long and somewhat curved bill and its dull, mouse-colored back. A narrow white stripe in the wing can be seen in flight.
Fall: Of their departure from Alaska, Doctor Nelson (1887) writes:
The young are mostly on the wing toward the end of July, and the birds begin to gather into flocks along the muddy edges of the brackish pools and the banks of tide creeks. Very soon after tjais they begin to lose their summer plumage, and the molt continues until the last of September or first of October. During the first of October they are very common in flocks and singly among the lakes and streams; a little later and the borders of these situations are edged with Ice and most of the birds leave for the south, but some of the hardier ones betake themselves to the seashore, where they join with Coue&s sandpiper and remain as late as the 12th or 13th of the month.
The southward migration separates into two widely divergent main routes, with oniy stragglers between. One route is southward along the Pacific coast and one southeastward along the west coast of Hudson Bay, through the eastern Great Lakes, and to the coast of New England and farther south. E. A. Preble (1902) saw them on the west coast of Hudson Bay, just commencing the migration, on July 19, and “present by thousands” south of Cape Eskimo on August 3 to 13. It seems to be a rare bird in the interior Provinces of Canada; my Manitoba correspondents have no fall records, and Professor Rowan has only one for Alberta. Mr. Brewster (1925) saw it regularly at Lake Umbagog, Maine, in October; and W. E. Clyde Todd (1904) calls it common in Erie County, Pennsylvania; probably these two points represent the north and south limits of the eastward route. Mr. Todd (1904) quotes from Samuel E. Bacon’s notes as follows:
In former years extensive flights took place about the 1st of November, upon which occasions bushels of them are said to have fallen to a single gun. During these great flights the flocks were accustomed to follow the outside beach of the peninsula (having prosumably come directly across the lake) to Its southeastern extremity, thence crossing over to the sand beach east of the mouth of Mill Creek, where, after having been sadly depleted by dozens of guns, they would finally rise high in the air and pass southward over the mainland, flock following flock, all day long. I know this by hearsay only, but am positive that this is the bird that used to arrive in such numbers late in the fall. On October 29, 1897, I killed 53 of these birds out of two flocks, comprising in all perhaps as many more, and this is the nearest approach to a flight that has occurred of late years.
The redbacks do not reach the Massachusetts coast in any numbers until the last week in September and the main flight comes in October, with some lingering into November and a few remain all winter occasionally. While with us they frequent the ocean beaches and salt-water mud flats, where they associate with sanderlings, ringnecks, peep, and turnstones. During high tides they rest on the high, sandy beaches in the large flocks of other small waders. They fly in close flocks, low over the water. The adults which come first, have nearly completed the body molt when they arrive here.
Winter: It is only a short flight farther to their winter homes on our southern coast. Dr. Louis B. Bishop (1901) found this to be “the most abundant sandpiper” on Pea Island, North Carolina, in winter. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says that it usually arrives in South Carolina about the fi.rst week in October and remains until May 25. “With the exception of the western sandpiper, this species is the most common of all the waders that winter on the coast. It is a very hardy bird and is apparently not inconvenienced by a temperature of 60 above zero.” We found it common all winter on the coastal islands and mud flats on the west coast of Florida. Mr. Nichols says in his notes:
Where met with on its winter range in northwest Florida it apparently shifted Its feeding grounds with high or low water, at the particular locality in mind, more or less dependent on the wind. When offshore winds caused low tides and extensive mud flats, It was less numerous; when the water was high, numbers were seen flying over the bay. They were present on inundated lnndward flats, and, as the tide receded, fed along the edge of the bay near by, wading In the water and often immersing most of the bead as they probed.
According to J. Hooper Bowles (1918) they winter farther north on the Pacific coast than on this side. lie writes:
These birds are among the last of the Limicolee to arrive In the fall migration, often reaching Washington after many of the other species have left for the South. They make up for it, however, by staying with us all winter and late into the spring. On the NLqually Flats I have seen them in flocks of hundreds when the marsh was a solid pack of snow and Ice, the rise and fall of the tide making sufficient feeding grounds to keep them fat and strong.
Range: North America and eastern Asia; casual in Central America and the West Indies.
Breeding range: North to northeastern Siberia (Taimyr Peninsula, Nijni Kolymsk, Cape Wankarem, and East Cape) ; Alaska (Cape Prince of Wales, Point Barrow, Colville Delta, and Camden Bay) ; Mackenzie (Cape Bathurst, Mackenzie Bay, Franklin Bay, and Baillie Island); and Franklin (Port Kennedy). East to Franklin (Port Kennedy and Felix harbor); and probably eastern Keewatin (Cape Fullerton). South to probably eastern Keewatin (Cape Fullerton); northwestern Mackenzie (Great Slave Lake and Peel River) ; and Alaska (probably Nushagak and Ugashik). West to Alaska (Ugashik, Pastolik, Hooper Bay, and St. Michael); and northeastern Siberia (Cape Serdze, Plover Bay, and Taimyr Peninsula). The species also has been recorded as breeding in Greenland, and on the coast of Labrador (Okak), but the records are indefinite or otherwise unsatisfactory.
Winter range: North to Washington (Dungeness Spit); Texas (Refugio County); Louisiana (Freshwater Bayou and New Orleans); and southern New Jersey (Anglesea). East to southern New Jersey (Anglesea, and Five-mile Beach); Virginia (Wallops, Cobbs, Sandy, and Hog Islands); North Carolina (Pea Island and Fort Macon); South Carolina (Port Royal and Frogmore); Georgia (Savannah and Darien); and Florida (Amelia Island, Tarpon 54267: 27: 16 Springs, and Fort Myers). South to Florida (Fort Myers); Texas (probably Brownsville); and Lower California( La Paz). West to Lower California (La Paz); California (San Diego, Alamitas Bay, Los Banos, San Francisco Bay, and Humboldt Bay); Oregon (Yaquina Bay); and Washington (Nisqually Flats, Tacoma, and Dungeness Spit).
It also has been noted in winter north to the mouth of the Fraser River, British Columbia (specimen in U. S. National Museum) Barnstable, Massachusetts (Howe, December 23, 1903); Long Island, New York (Fleischer, December 25, 1914); and south to Great Inagua, Bahama Islands (Worthington, February 3, 1909).
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival in the spring are: New York, Long Island, April 3, Canandaigua, April 20, and Orient, May 7; Rhode Island, Block Island, May 12; Massachusetts, Monomoy Island, April 13, Rehoboth, May 2, and Boston, May 4; Quebec, Quebec, May 2; Illinois, Addison, May 9; Ohio, Youngstown, April 18, Cedar Point, May 8, Tiffin, May 10, and Oberlin, May 11; Michigan, Jackson, May 4, Detroit, May 13, and Ann Arbor, May 14; Ontario, Toronto, May 12, and Point Pelee, May 13; Iowa, Sigourney, May 13; Wisconsin, Whitewater, May 1, Madison, May 10, and Elkhorn, May 13; Minnesota, Heron Lake, May 11, Waseca, May 14, and Hutchinson, May 18; eastern Nebraska, Lincoln, May 7; South Dakota, Vermilion, April 29, and Huron, May 6; North Dakota, Sweetwater, May 10; Manitoba, Whitewater Lake, May 12, and Shoal Lake, May 22; British Columbia, Courtenay, April 18, Chilliwak, April 25, and Metlakatla, April 29; YukOn, Dawson, May 24; Alaska, Howcan, April 2, Kuiu Island, April 28, Craig, May 1, mouth of the Yukon River, May 10, Admiralty Island, May 14, Fort Kenai, May 16, and Point Barrow, May 31; and Siberia, Bering Island, May 26, and Nijni Kolymsk, May 28.
Late dates of spring departure are: Florida, Gasparilla Island, May 24, St. Marks, May 26, and New Smyrna, May 26; Georgia, Savannah, May 29; South Carolina, Mount Pleasant, May 29; North Carolina, Fort Macon, May 22, and Churchs Island, May 26; Virginia, Pig Island, May 28; New Jersey, Anglesea, May 20; New York, Canandaigua, May 26, New York City, May 30, Rockaway, June 3, and Geneva, June 7; Massachusetts, Cape Cod, May 22, and Ipswich, May 30; Maine, Scarboro, June 2; Quebec, Quebec City, May 28; Illinois, Waukegan, May 27, Riverdale, May 31, and Chicago, June 5; Ohio, Painesville, May 27, Oberlin, June 1, and Lakeside, June 16; Michigan, Sault Ste. Marie, May 29, Detroit, May 30, and Neebish Island, June 3; Ontario, Mitchell’s Bay, June 1, Hamilton, June 3, Point Pelee, June 10, and Toronto, June 13; Iowa, Emmetsburg, May 25, Storm Lake, May 26, and Sioux City, June 4; Wisconsin, Madison, May 27, and Green Bay, June 4; Minnesota, Lanesboro, May 30, Heron Lake, June 2, and Wilder, June 10; Texas, Fort Brown, May 16, Dallas, May 20, and Corpus Christi, May 29; eastern Nebraska, Lincoln, June 9; South Dakota, Vermilion, May 24, and Forestburg, May 30; North Dakota, Jerusalem, June 1; Manitoba, Killarney, May 28, and Shoal Lake, June 5; California, Fresno, May 15, Santa Barbara, May 17, and Alameda, May 21; Oregon, Beaver Creek, Lincoln County, May 18, and Silver Lake, June 4; and British Columbia, Cowickan, May 18.
Fall migration: Early dates of fall arrival are: Washington, Smith Island, August 14, and Point Chehalis, August 20; California, Santa Barbara, September 9, Alameda, September 19, and Hayward, September 20; Manitoba, Gimli, August 20; South Dakota, Forestburg, July 30; eastern Nebraska, Lincoln, September 1; Minnesota, Wilder, September 16; Ontario, Brighton, July .31, and Ottawa, August 21; Michigan, Saginaw Bay, August 20, and Ann Arbor, September 21; Ohio, Youngstown, August 10, Pelee Island, August 15, and Cleveland, August 22; Illinois, Chicago, July 22; Quebec, Godbout, September 7; Massachusetts, Norton, August 26, and Taunton, September 1; New York, Orient, August 11, Canandaigua, September 14, and Ithaca, September 24; Pennsylvania, Erie, September 25; Maryland, Lock Raven, September 3; District of Columbia, Washington, September 25; Virginia, Smiths Island, September 28; and South Carolina, Mount Pleasant, September 30.
Late dates of fall departures are: Siberia, Bering Island, October 25; Alaska, Sitka, October 10, mouth of the Yukon River, October 13, and St. Paul Island, October 30; British Columbia, Comox, October 22, and Chilliwack, November 29; Manitoba, Lake Winnipeg, October 31; eastern Nebraska, Lincoln, November 7; Minnesota, Hallock, October 16; Wisconsin, Madison, November 15; Iowa, Keokuk, October 4, and Marshalltown, October 12; Ontario, Ottawa, October 29, and Long Point, November 2; Michigan, Detroit, October 11, Sault Ste. Marie, October 22, and St. Clair Flats, November 20; Ohio, Huron, November 5, Youngstown, November 8, and Columbus, November 28; Illinois, Chicago, October 31, Lake Forest, November 3, and La Grange, November 6; Maine, Lewiston, October 12, and Portland, November 25; Massachusetts, Lynn, November 3, Boston, November 10, and Monomoy Island, November 14; Rhode Island, Block Island, November 16; Connecticut, Fairfield, November 29; New York, Orient, November 12, and Long Beach, December 25; and Pennsylvania, Erie, November 3.
Casual records: Accidental occurrences of the red-backed sandpiper have been reported mostly from the Rocky Mountain States. Among these are: Arizona, near Tucson, April, 1883; Nevada, Pyramid Lake, May, 1868; and Utah, Ogden and Salt Lake City (reported in September by Allen). It also has been reported as detected at Dominica, West Indies, October 1, 1904; and at Momotombo, Nicaragua, on May 23. (This last record represented by a specimen in the British Museum.)
Egg dates: Alaska: 83 records, May 26 to July 8; 42 records, June 4 to 30. Arctic Canada: 15 records, June 5 to July 7; 8 records, June 26 to July 3.