What to look for to identify Baird's, Pectoral, and White-rumped Sandpipers
Published: June 25, 2010
When I’m leading ID workshops, I sometimes challenge participants to look at some obvious bird and tell how they would identify it without reference to color or markings. Usually the request leads first to consternation and then to a new focus on shape, behavior, voice, and habitat — the real character of the bird. That kind of focus pays off when we’re looking at a species with subtle markings, like Baird’s Sandpiper.
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Because of its distribution, Baird’s is not well known. In spring it is a common migrant through the Great Plains but seldom seen to the east or west of that corridor. In fall it is once again a common migrant on the Great Plains, as well as in the Rocky Mountain region, where it often appears around lakes at high elevation.
Fall is also the season when migrants spread out well to the east and west, appearing in small numbers throughout the interior and on both coasts. The majority of these birds are juveniles, and they are most likely to be seen in early fall, between early August and mid-September. If you live far from the center of the continent, this period offers the best opportunity to find the bird.
Of course, the long sweep of the Great Plains represents only a small part of the migratory route of Baird’s Sandpiper, which belongs to that set of long-distance migrants that spend the summer in the high Arctic and the winter in southern South America.
It shares the route with American Golden-Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Hudsonian Godwit, all birds that are seen more commonly in the central corridor than anywhere else in the Lower 48. A century ago, the legendary Eskimo Curlew traveled this route as well, but no one knows if the bird is still with us or not.
In keeping with its long migration, and like some of its fellow travelers, Baird’s has long wings. At rest, the wingtips extend well past the end of the tail. Its flight is graceful, its silhouette long-winged. In keeping with its passage through the Great Plains, Baird’s could be considered one of the “grasspipers.” Flocks are often found in wet fields, or even in open grassy areas, away from traditional shorebird spots. Even when it gathers at mudflats with other shorebirds, it often walks on higher and drier areas. Checking habitat preference and noting long-winged shape are often the quickest ways to pick out the species.
In terms of other field marks, the bird is much more subtle. A close study will reveal its straight, fine-tipped bill, its overall brown look, its relatively muted head pattern, and its pattern of soft streaks on the brown or gray-brown chest. Nothing about Baird’s is eye-catching. But as one of the Western Hemisphere’s champion long-distance migrants, it deserves our respect. You can take pride in learning to recognize it.
What to look for
In comparison with other shorebirds, looks larger than Least or Semipalmated and smaller than Pectoral Sandpiper.
Shape and posture. Often horizontal stance; looks elongated. Wingtips extend past tip of tail.
Overall color and pattern. Mostly patterned in pale brown without areas of strong contrast.
Breast pattern. Fine, soft streaks on upper breast only; pale gray-brown or buff background.
Leg color. Black, but leg color is often hard to judge on small sandpipers.
Baird’s Sandpiper was not described to science until 1861. Yes, that seems like a long time ago, but it was relatively late in the history of North American bird discovery. Other small sandpipers — Least, Pectoral, White-rumped, and Buff-breasted — had been noticed and named more than 40 years earlier. Early naturalist-explorers who made it out to the Great Plains were focused on things other than migrant shorebirds, and as Wilson, Audubon, and other pioneer ornithologists explored eastern North America in the early 1800s, it’s understandable that they would have missed this cryptic bird among the hordes of other migrating sandpipers.
When I was a kid, trying to learn bird identification purely from books, I struggled with Baird’s Sandpiper. My old Peterson guide said that it had a “scaly back,” and I believed everything in Peterson; but it seemed I was seeing many sandpipers with a scaly pattern on the upperparts. This was especially true in fall. Several years later, I came to understand that pale edges on dark feathers created the scaly pattern on the upperparts, and that it could show up on many sandpipers in fresh plumage — especially juveniles in late summer and early fall. Actually, Baird’s does tend to show a more obviously scaly pattern than most species on the center of the upper back, but this is hard to judge if you lack experience making comparisons.