Sandpipers, Phalaropes and Allies (Scolopacidae)
The gulls, plovers, sheathbills of the Antarctic, predatory skuas, and sandpipers are five of the nineteen families in the taxonomic order CHARADRIIFORMES (pronounced kah-RAH-dree-ih-FOR-meez).
Sandpipers, phalaropes and allies are in the Scolopacidae (pronounced skoh-loh-PAY-suh-dee) family, a group of ninety-one species of wading birds in twenty-one genera occurring nearly worldwide.
In North America, sixty-five species of sandpipers, phalaropes and allies in eighteen genera have occurred. Included among these birds are the large, long-billed godwits and curlews, the harlequin-like Ruddy Turnstone, and a variety of sandpiper species.
Sandpipers, phalaropes and allies are known for their affinity for the water’s edge. The Sanderling is known for its habit of running on beaches to pursue and retreat from waves in its attempt to remain at the very edge of the water.
Sandpipers, phalaropes and allies range from the sparrow-sized “peeps” to the heron-sized curlews. In general, they have plump bodies, short tails, longish necks with small heads, and long, pointed wings for fast, long distance flight. Leg length varies among species although most have fairly long legs suited for wading. Sandpipers also demonstrate a wide variety of bill sizes and shapes that reflect different feeding behaviors; there are species with short, stubby bills, thin medium length bills, long, thin bills, and decurved bills.
Aside from the Ruddy Turnstone with its striking black, white, and orange plumage with red legs and bill, most sandpipers are plumaged in browns, gray, white, and black although dark red-orange colors are also shown by the breeding plumages of dowitchers and the Red Knot. In most species, these colors are combined for handsome, intricate patterns that act as camouflage and attract mates in the breeding season. During the winter, most species molt into drab gray and white plumages.
Sandpipers, phalaropes and allies occur in a wide variety of aquatic habitats that include mudflats, beaches, shores of ponds, lakes and rivers, and marshes although two members of the family, the Long-billed Curlew and Upland Sandpiper, are grassland birds. Most members of this family breed in the extensive wetlands of the Arctic tundra, utilizing other wetland habitats during migration and winter.
Most members of this family are migrants, several species flying to South America for the winter.
The majority of sandpipers, phalaropes and allies occur in flocks outside of the breeding season. They can often be seen foraging in mixed flocks for a variety of invertebrates and crustaceans, each species searching for food in a different manner or in different habitats. For example the Least Sandpiper probes just below the mud at water’s edge, dowitchers probe deep into the mud further out in the water, and the Greater Yellowlegs chases small fry with its bill held below the surface of the water.
Although not considered endangered, populations of the Red Knot in eastern North America have been steeply falling because of over harvesting of the Horseshoe Crab; the eggs of which serve as their main food source during a critical migration stop-over in the Delaware Bay.
The Eskimo Curlew plays a role similar to that of the enigmatic and controversial Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A historically common bird, by the start of the twentieth century, it became very rare due to overhunting. Since then, unlike other shorebird species that were also heavily hunted, it has not recovered and might be extinct. A sliver of hope is kept alive, though, by documented sightings in the 1960’s, undocumented sightings since then, and the fact that it breeds and winters in very remote areas.