From egg to sandpiper

Bruce Mactavish
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A spotted sandpiper teeters away on the mud beneath the mangroves on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica under a hot and humid midday sun in March.

The sandpiper has been here all winter but lately it feels a growing urge to leave this comfortable winter home to do something important up north. It may not know exactly why there is this burning need, but Mother Nature has planted a seed.

It is her way of making sure this sandpiper will reproduce. In early April the little sandpiper, armed with the urge, sets out on an odyssey.

It travels north along Caribbean coast passing over the unseen and meaningless borders of Nicaragua, Belize and Mexico before entering the state of Texas.

It holes up in a Texas wetland for a week or so waiting for spring to advance. It finds other shorebirds, including more spotted sandpipers, all on individual missions of their own, each with a different destination.

In late April, out spotted sandpiper moves again, hopscotching northeastward over the United States, stopping at stream sides and marshes along the way to feed. In early May it lands in Nova Scotia. The winds are cold and from the east. After a 10-day delay there is a break in the weather and it makes the dash to Newfoundland. It does not stop until it reaches its goal. It is Cape Spear.

Why Cape Spear? Because it is the place it knows. This is the place it was hatched three summers ago. It has come back each of the last two summers and raised a sandpiper family of its own.

The spotted sandpiper is common right across Canada nesting along stream sides, lake shores and ocean fronts. The practise of returning to or near the home grounds is Nature’s way of keeping spotted sandpipers spread out across the land rather than having chaotic accumulations of sandpipers at a few locations.

First thing the spotted sandpiper does is find some turf where it can set up a home territory capable of supporting a pair of sandpipers and a fresh brood of young sandpipers. Through experience this spotted sandpiper knew that the trickle of water flowing from the Cape Spear parking lot to the ocean is a relatively safe and healthy location to raise a summer family. This is the choice real-estate at Cape Spear and there are other spotted sandpipers eyeing the same location.

The first week back at Cape Spear is a noisy occasion for spotted sandpipers involved in property disputes while at the same time the males are working to attract a mate. Early into the second week of occupation, property disputes are more or less worked out and mates are secured. The female picks a nest site.

It forms a body cup on the ground among the grass and lays four eggs, one big egg per day until the nest is full and then begins the 21-day period of incubation. There are many perils.

One bird remains on guard warning of approaching potential danger with a distinctive call.

The incubating bird remains stock still relying heavily on a camouflage patterned plumage to protect it from the piercing eyes of a patrolling northern harrier or the ever present marauding crows. Even when the incubating bird has to leave the nest for short periods of time to feed, the mottled markings on the exposed eggs look like part of the ground.

After successfully avoiding all the dangers, the four eggs hatch in early July. Now the parents have a world of worry on their minds. The little sandpipers are able to walk shortly after hatching.

They feed themselves on insect life while under the guidance of an adult. At the first sign of danger a parent bird sounds an alarm which instinctively tells the chicks to freeze where they are allowing the pattern of their downy plumage to meld with the colour of the terrain.  

When the danger passes a parent bird gives the all clear call and the four little sandpipers resume feeding.

On cold, wet mornings the tiny sandpiper young, no more than puffballs on legs, will shelter from the rain under the spread wings of a parent sandpiper.

A prolonged period of cold and wet is just one of the hazards that can claim the lives of the little sandpipers.

Rarely do all four chicks reach adult size. Those that do, fatten up quickly on the abundance of insect life in the damp grass among the Cape Spear rocks.

By the end of August they are pretty much independent of the adults.

They are able to look after themselves just in time to start migrating south toward the mangrove swamps on the east coast of Costa Rica where their relatives have always gone to spend the winter.

The young sandpipers are just over two months old when they leave Cape Spear in early September. You have to learn quickly in the world of the spotted sandpiper. Such is life. Many young do not get through their first autumn. Such is nature.

This is why nature gives the spotted sandpiper four new chances to add more spotted sandpipers to the population every summer.

Overall, the number of spotted sandpipers remains stable. There are enough young surviving to replace the annual mortality of the spotted sandpiper.

This scenario is played out among the many thousands of spotted sandpipers across the land each year. And this is only one of the many species of birds nesting in our province and across Canada this summer that are going through a similar cycle of renewal of life.

The chain of life carries on around the clock, all around us, every day. July is an important month for the newly hatched.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at,

or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Texas, Canada, Caribbean Nicaragua Belize Mexico United States Nova Scotia Newfoundland Costa Rica

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