Many Birders call them peeps, lump them together and tend to only look at the obvious clear examples of the species but, look closer, there is more to them than meets the eye. This post is essentially about Semipalmated Sandpipers and their variability. We see them in their hundreds or even thousands here in Nova Scotia but when there are only half a dozen, we take time to notice the differences.
Semipalmated and Western Sandpiper form a species pair in North America with Westerns having a more self-explanatory summer distribution, but becoming more common further south, all along the south eastern seaboard on migration and in winter. Most Semipalmated Sandpipers winter further south (of the US), and so any winter peep is most likely a Western
Western Sandpiper is rare in Nova Scotia but presumably somewhat overlooked, individuals getting lost in the swirls of Semipalmated that pass through in autumn. Semipalmated flocks are regularly encountered in August through September. Typically most Westerns will be immature birds showing rusty cheeks and scapular bar along with a long, slightly kinked at-the-tip bill and having a propensity to look front heavy.
Identifying ‘standard issue’ Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers should not be an issue if you are aware of the plumage features of both, however, female eastern Semipalmated Sandpipers can show a very long bill and, in certain light, display an element of rustiness about their plumage. Such birds were seen around Daniel’s Head, Cape Sable Island on the rising tide a couple of times in late September 2016. Similar birds have caused consternation in the past, where both species are true vagrants and so I thought I’d do a Semipalmated gallery showing the normal to the extreme.
Typical Semis with short, largely tubular bills.
Intermediate Semi bills.
Note the palmations on the one above.
Odd looking, deep-based bill on the one above.
A real rusty looking Semi above, almost Little Stint like.
The odd looking, long-billed Semi.
A long-billed Semi (below, distant) with an additional (poor) shot with the colour enhanced, or is it a Western?
And just to end on a Western Sandpiper note, here is a Western (middle bird) I saw on Daniel’s Head in September 2015, at range and in fog, hence the lack of colour but the structure and bill says it all.
Another Western Sandpiper, this one is from Quebec in August 2007. We should be looking for Westerns in NS from late July through mid-October at least and we could do with more information regarding plumage variability, especially reduced rustiness of the coverts. The photographic field guides, even the group dedicated ones, fall short with some species in my opinion, and there is room for a dedicated photographic guide that deals with the tricky birds only, and devotes its pages to decent, informative shots and not a hotchpotch of fillers.
Finally a question, why exactly are these long-billed Semipalmated Sandpipers growing long bills? Perhaps they are somewhere between both species? An interesting little conundrum, yes?