Birders refer to small shorebirds as “peeps”, because of their calls – a thin, peeping sound which can grow to quite a chorus when you run across a large flock of them.
The sandpipers in this photo are likely immature Least sandpipers, though it’s possible they’re Western sandpipers – the two species can look very similar in the field.
Tiny sandpipers like these, weighing only about an ounce, travel immense distances every year – wintering as far south as Peru, then breeding in Alaska and northern Canada. During migration they travel along the BC coast, stopping to rest and feed a few times. These birds were likely on their way south when I encountered them in August, enjoying the sunshine in Blunden Harbour.
Least sandpipers nest right across the far north of our continent, but Western sandpipers – true to their name – all head to the west coast of Alaska or eastern Siberia for breeding. That means that during their migrations, the entire world population of 3.6 million Western sandpipers is travelling along the BC coast!
Both species have to stop down at key places along the way to rest and feed, to sustain them on their long journeys. For Western sandpipers, Roberts Bank and Boundary Bay are vital – they’re among the very few places along their migration route where thousands of birds can feed together on tiny invertebrates in the mud flats and sand. Least sandpipers travel in smaller flocks (from dozens to hundreds, rather than thousands like their Western cousins), so they can make use of smaller wetland areas, such as those on Sidney Island and in Blunden Harbour.
The biggest threat to sandpipers comes from human beings: our unfortunate tendency to dredge, dike, fill, pave or otherwise destroy their habitat. The global population of Western sandpipers could be devastated if the Port of Metro Vancouver is given a green light to expand its container port at Roberts Bank – an essential resting and feeding spot for these as well as many other birds. And if that happens, we humans would be the biggest losers of all.