THOSE PUZZLING PEEPS
By Jeannie Marcure
Last July when Bob Lee asked me to write a bird profile on “peeps” for the September newsletter, my first reaction was to wonder why he thought the Pileated Post readers would be interested in an article about the colored, marshmallow chickens that appear in the Valley every Easter!
Later, after giving the matter some serious thought, I realized that what he really wanted was a profile of the the tiny, sparrow-sized sandpipers that are collectively called “peeps.” The British call their similar birds “stints.” Three kinds of peeps, the Semipalmated Sandpiper, the Western Sandpiper, and the Least Sandpiper, can be found in the Flathead during migration, and September is a perfect time to hone up your identification skills for these challenging little birds. During their stopover visits, these small waders favor the exposed mudflats near very shallow water. They can often be spotted walking along the water’s edge, feeding on the aquatic insects and worms on the surface and also probing in the mud for these delicacies.
Of course, once you’ve spotted one of these small shorebirds, the challenge of telling them apart begins!
The Least, at 6 inches, is the smallest American shorebird. It can be distinguished from the other two “peeps” by its browner coloring, greenish or yellowish (not black) legs, and short thin bill. In particular, the slightly down-curved bill is shorter, thinner and more pointed than the other two. Least also prefer grassy edges to the more open mudflats frequented by the others. Its call is a clear kreet and when feeding, a soft chuckle.
The Semipalmated is slightly larger than the Least, has black legs and a tubular-looking, straight (no droop) bill that is noticeably thicker than that of the Least. It is also grayer and usually lacks spotting on the flanks. In the fall, it lacks the rusty coloring on the scapulars that is common to the Western. The term semipalmated refers to the toes and means half-webbed. Actually, the toes are only slightly lobed at their bases, but they do help the birds forage on the mud flats without sinking. The call of the Semi is a sharp cheh or churk and is not as drawn out as the calls of the Western and the Least.
The Western is the largest of the three, has black legs and in breeding plumage, a rusty crown and ear patch and scapulars. Perhaps the best way to distinguish the Western from the Semipalmated is by the bill, which is noticeably longer and thicker at the base and has an evident droop at the tip. The Western also usually feeds in deeper water than the other ”peeps” and sometimes immerses its bill completely. The call is a soft cheep or kreep and is higher and thinner than that of the Semipalmated.
The Western and the Least are the two most common peeps here in Western Montana, while the Semipalmated migrates primarily east of the Rockies and occasionally can be spotted in our area. My favorite local places to look for migrating shorebirds are the Smith Lake fishing access and the drive-though ponds in Lower Valley. I also read on the Mob hotline recently that the Pablo Reservoir has been drained down and is a hotspot for migrating shorebirds this fall.
Information for this article was gathered from Birds in Place by Radd Icenoggle, eNature.com, and National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. The illustration is from Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson.