Although this species does not carry Alexander
Wilson’s name, it was in fact named by him in 1813. It is just like the ever observant Wilson to make special note of the fact that the bird tends to be seen alone or in very small flocks. Hence the name Tringa solitaria.
In Volume Three of American Ornithology, Wilson wrote: “This new species inhabits the watery solitudes of our highest mountains during the summer, from Kentucky to New York; but it is no where numerous, seldom more than one or two being seen together.” So far, so good. Except for the range. We’ll talk more about that in a moment.
Wilson continues: “It takes short, low flights; runs nimbly about among the mossy margins of the mountain springs, brooks, and pools, occasionally stopping, looking at you, and perpetually nodding the head.” Yes, that’s a solitary sandpiper alright.
Again, however, when Wilson talks about the range of this species, he runs into trouble. “They regularly breed on Pocono Mountain, between Easton and Wilkesbarre, in Pennsylvania, arriving there early in May, and departing in September.”
There may well have been solitary sandpipers on Pocono Mountain between May and September, however, they would have been migrants. Wilson admitted that he himself had “made many long and close searches for the nest of this bird, without success.” We shouldn’t be too hard on him for failing to find the nest of a solitary sandpiper. Except for a rare Minnesota record, the birds do not nest in the United States. Even more confusing is the fact that solitary sandpipers do not nest on the ground like their cousins. They nest in trees! After Wilson first described this species, 90 years would pass before someone actually found one of its nests.
Tringa solitaria is not the only sandpiper to regularly nest in trees. It shares this habit with Tringa ochropus, or the green sandpiper. This, its Old World counterpart, is similar in many ways. Coming from Europe, Wilson was familiar with the green sandpiper and made note of this.
From a distance a solitary sandpiper may at first resemble a spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia) However, it is slightly larger with more contrast between its white belly and darker upperparts. Then, there is also the dark greenish legs and what David Sibley refers to as white “spectacles”. These latter are always a dead giveaway.
Also helpful in identifying the solitary sandpiper is that they are generally found in places where you would not necessarily expect to find waders. This includes isolated ditches and vernal pools, often in woodlands. They are hardly even seen in intertidal habitats, preferring as they do inland fresh water.
The solitary sandpiper nests in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. It uses the old nests of songbirds, including the American robin, rusty blackbird, eastern kingbird, gray jay, and cedar waxwing. Three to five eggs are laid. These are creme-colored with brown blotches. The blotches tend to congregate at the larger end. The young are ready to leave the nest as soon as their down has dried.
Not that you will ever have to worry about identifying a solitary sandpiper’s nest or young. The best we get here are adult or hatching year birds making their way either to or from the breeding territory. According to Bob Ringler, the arrival and departure date records for this bird in Carroll County are April 10 to May 24 and July 3 to October 12. So, the species regularly appears on both our May and Fall counts.
Some solitary sandpipers winter in the southeastern United States. However, most continue to anywhere from Central America and the West Indies south to Argentina and Uruguay. Vagrants have also turned up in Bermuda, Iceland, Greenland, Western Europe, South Georgia, and South Africa.