Thursday, August 12, 2010

Unspotted Spotted Sandpipers

Diamond Lake, Douglas County, Oregon: July 29, 2010

I’ve walked down to the shore of Diamond Lake, high in the Cascades, to see if there is any sign of a major dragonfly emergence. There is. The rocks and grasses along the water e edge are sprinkled with empty nymph casing. Hundreds, if not thousands, of damsel flies have recently emerged. In the beginning their colors are drab greenish. Soon they are tiny turquoise and black jewels. Already, as I walk along the path, I feel as though I’m kicking up turquoise fairy dust.

A spotted sandpiper feeds along the shore edge, taking advantage of the bounty of tender damsels. I sit down next to the rip rap which borders the lake’s outlet and steady my camera on my knee. The sandpiper is across the outlet and apparently undisturbed by my presence. It is a beautiful mature bird, with black spots all over his breast. He (or she?) eats. He snoozes. He wanders farther away.

Just when I’m ready to leave I hear soft “peeps” coming from the other end of the twenty feet of rip rap I’m sitting on. I get a glimpse of fuzzy. Yes! It is teen aged spotted sandpipers. Two of them don’t know quite what to do about my presence, but they are getting used to me. First I catch just glimpses as they hurry back and forth between one rock and another. They relax and start to peer at me. Funny little birds. Their new feathers are coming in and the down from their first coat hasn’t worn off. It is Phyllis Diller hair on top of a nicely feather body and someone forgot to put their spots on. Instead of a well spotted breast, the youngster’s breast feathers are a plain, soft grey. During the winter the adults loose their spots too.

Their tails are the scraggliest part. Long plumes blow with every movement as if they are trying to make more of their tails than is really there. The effect is exaggerated because fluffy natal down is still attached to the little tail feathers that are growing in.

The little sandpipers feed a little and peer at me and call out every so often. Finally I hear an adult, calling from across the outlet, about fifty feet away. I think the little guys realize they are supposed to fly across all that water to their parent … but first they shorten the distance by coming closer to me. About ten feet from me, one, and then the other, flies to the opposite shore and are hurried off by their parent.

Aug 1, 2010: Diamond Lake

The sandpipers have changed a lot in just three days. They look much more grown up – most of the natal down has rubbed off and new feathers dominate. But their tails still look like scraggly feather dusters. The down still hasn’t worn off the tips of their tail feathers.


  1. Fabulous painting of a Spotty. It is fun to watch the young. They are one of the most trusting sandpipers I am ever around. I love the idea of waling through a cloud of turquoise fairy dust. What a beautiful picture that brings to my mind.

  2. Love the word pictures you paint as well as your sketches! Turquoise fairy dust and scraggly feather dusters! Hee! I'll have a smile on my face the rest of the evening!

  3. It's wonderful that you were able to spend so much time observing and sketching them, and what a treat to be able to return and see the same birds again, checking up on their progress. I wonder if adolescence is as traumatic to birds as it is to us humans.