1902 Encyclopedia > Sandpiper


SANDPIPER (Germ. Sandpfeifer), according to Willughby in 1676 the name given by Yorkshiremen to the bird now most popularly known in England as the " Summer-Snipe,"—the Tringa hypoleucos of Linnaeus and the Totanus, Actitis, or Tringaides hypoleucus of later writers,—but probably even in Willughby's time of much wider signification, as for more than a century it has certainly been applied to nearly all the smaller kinds of the group termed by modern ornithologists Limicolae which are not PLOVERS (vol. xix. p. 227), or SNIPES (q.v.), but may be said to be intermediate between them. Placed by most systematists in the family Scolopacidae, the birds commonly called Sandpipers seem to form three sections, which have been often regarded as Subfamilies— Totaninae, Tringinae, and Phalaropodinae, the last indeed in some classifications taking the higher rank of a Family—_ Phalaropodidae. This section comprehends three species only, known as Phalaropes or swimming Sandpipers, which are at once distinguished by the membranes that fringe their toes, in two of the species forming marginal lobes, and by the character of their lower plumage, which is as close as that of a Duck, and is obviously connected with their natatory habits. The distinctions between Totaninae and Tringinae, though believed to be real, are not so easily drawn, and space is wanting here to describe them minutely. The most obvious may be said to lie in the acute or blunt form of the tip of the bill (with which is associated a less or greater development of the sensitive nerves running almost if not quite to its extremity, and therefore greatly influencing the mode of feeding) and in the style of plumage—the Tringinae, with blunt and flexible bills, mostly assuming a summer-dress in which some tint of chestnut or reddish-brown is very prevalent, while the Totaninae, with acute and stiffer bills, display no such lively colours. Furthermore, the Tringinae, except when actually breeding, frequent the sea-shore much more than do the Totaninae. To the latter belong the GREENSHANK (vol. xi. p. 173) and REDSHANK (vol. xx. p. 317), as well as the Common Sandpiper of English books, the "Summer-Snipe" above-mentioned, a bird hardly exceeding a Skylark in size, and of very general distribution throughout the British Islands, but chiefly frequenting clear streams, especially those with a gravelly or rocky bottom, and most generally breeding on the beds of sand or shingle on their banks. It usually makes its appearance in May, and from thence during the summer-months may be seen in pairs skimming gracefully over the water from one bend of the stream to another, uttering occasionally a shrill but plaintive whistle, or running nimbly along the margin, the mouse-coloured plumage of its back and wings making indeed but little show, though the pure white of its lower parts often renders it conspicuous. The nest, in which four eggs are laid with their pointed ends meeting in its centre (as is usual among Limicolme birds), is seldom far from the water's edge, and the eggs, as well as the newly-hatched and down-covered young, so closely resemble the surrounding pebbles that it takes a sharp eye to discriminate them. Later in the season family-parties may be seen about the larger waters, whence, as autumn advances, they depart for their winter-quarters. The Common Sandpiper is found over the greater part of the Old World. In summer it is the most abundant bird of its kind in the extreme north of Europe, and it extends across Asia to Japan. In winter it makes its way to India, Australia, and the Cape of Good Hope. In America its place is taken by a closely kindred species, which is said to have also occurred in England—T. macularius, the " Peetweet," or Spotted Sandpiper, so called from its usual cry, or from the almost circular marks which spot its lower plumage. In habits it is very similar to its congener of the Old World, and in winter it migrates to the Antilles and to Central and South America. Of other Totaninx, one of the most remarkable is that to which the inappro-priate name of Green Sandpiper has been assigned, the Totanus or Helodromas ochropus of ornithologists, which most curiously differs (so far as is known) from all others of the group both in its osteology and mode of nidifica-tion, the hen laying her eggs in the deserted nests of other birds,—Jays, Thrushes, or Pigeons,—but nearly always at some height (from 3 to 30 feet) from the ground (Proc. Zool. Society, 1863, pp. 529-532). This species occurs in England the whole year round, and is pre-sumed to have bred here, though the fact has never been satisfactorily proved, and our knowledge of its erratic habits comes from naturalists in Pomerania and Sweden ; yet in the breeding-season, even in England, the cock-bird has been seen to rise high in air and perform a variety of evolutions on the wing, all the while piping what, without any violence of language, may be called a song. This Sandpiper is characterized by its dark upper plumage, which contrasts strongly with the white of the lower part of the back and gives the bird as it flies away from its dis-turber much the look of a very large House-Martin. The so-called Wood-Sandpiper, T. glareola, which, though much less common, is known to have bred in England, has a considerable resemblance to the species last mentioned, but can at once be distinguished, and often as it flies, by the feathers of the axillary plume being white barred with greyish-black, while in the Green Sandpiper they are greyish-black barred with white. It is an abundant bird in most parts of northern Europe, migrating in winter very far to the southward.

Of the section Tringinae the best known are the KNOT (vol. xiv. p. 129) and the Dunlin, T. alpina. The latter, often also called Ox-bird, Plover's-Page, Purre, and Stint,— names which it shares with some other species,—not only breeds commonly on many of the elevated moors of Britain, but in autumn resorts in countless flocks to the shores, where indeed a few may be seen at almost any time of year. In seasonal diversity of plumage it is scarcely excelled by any bird of its kind, being in winter of a nearly uniform ash-grey above and white beneath, while in summer the feathers of the back are black, with deep rust-coloured edges, and a broad black belt occupies the breast. The Dunlin varies considerably in size, and to some extent according to locality, examples from North America being almost always recognizable from their greater bulk, while in Europe, besides the ordinary form, there appears to be a smaller race which has received the name of T. schinzi, but no other difference is perceptible. In the breeding- season, while performing the amatory flights in which like all Sandpipers he indulges, the male Dunlin utters a most peculiar and far-sounding whistle, quite impossible to syllable, and somewhat resembling the continued ringing of a high-toned but yet musical bell. Next to the Dunlin and Knot the commonest British Tringinse are the Sanderling, Calidris arenaria (to be distinguished from every other bird of the group by wanting a hind toe), the Purple Sandpiper, T. striata or maritima, the Curlew-Sandpiper, T. subarquata, and the Little and Temminck's Stints, T. minuta and T. temmincki, but want of space forbids more than the record of their names; and for the same reason no notice can here be taken of the many other species, chiefly American, belonging to this group. Two other birds, however, must be mentioned. These are the Broad-billed Sandpiper, T. platyrhyncha, of the Old World, which seems to be more Snipe-like than any that are usually kept in this section, and the marvellous Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Eurinorhynchus pygmxus, whose true home has still to be discovered, according to the experience of Baron Nordenskjold in the memorable voyage of the " Vega." (A. N.)


3 It possesses only a single pair of posterior "emarginations" on its sternum, in this respect resembling the RUFF (supra, p. 54). Among the PLOVERS (vol. xix. p. 227) and SNIPES (q.v.) other similarly exceptional cases may be found.

The above article was written by: Prof. Alfred Newton.

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