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  • Christopher Stephens, MSc

Sandpipers: Unexpected Fishing Experts

Shorebirds can be Deadly Natural Enemies of Fish

A Sandpiper Gone Fishing: This Greater Yellowlegs Caught a Small Staghorn Sculpin


Sandpipers are among the most familiar of all shorebirds, or waders as they are known in the UK. Related closely to plovers, oystercatchers, avocets and stilts and more distantly to gulls and terns, sandpipers, which belong to the family Scolopacidae, fill a broad range of habitats worldwide. Frequently, sandpipers inhabit coastal, lakeshore, marsh and grassland habitats. Sandpipers may not seem predatory, but these birds are in fact accomplished hunters. Many sandpiper species feed on small worms, crustaceans and insects gleaned from beaches and fields. Others make a living largely from biofilm.


The Greater yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca is a Western Hemisphere shorebird familiar as a migrant and winter resident along the Pacific Coasts and interior of the North American content that breeds in the Boreal Forest and winters in Mexico, Central and South America and warmer parts of the United States and Canada. This big sandpiper, slightly larger than a Blue Jay or Steller's Jay has long, tweezer-like mandibles that make fish captures possible on wading forays.


The individual pictured in this article plucked a small Staghorn Sculpin, itself an accomplished predator of other fish when full grown out of the French Creek Estuary on Vancouver Island and made a quick meal of it. Other large sandpipers like the Hudsonian Godwit may find a meal fishing. The author observed a Hudsonian Godwit capturing and swallowing a gunnel, a type of fish related to perch and bass but resembling an eel on a past birding expedition.


While Sandpipers most frequently eat invertebrates, predation on fish remains an aspect of ornithology that warrants further attention. These types of interactions go to show the strong degree of interconnections between healthy ecosystems and wildlife abundance. Erosion, loss of native vegetation, pollution through oil and pesticide runoff all harm sandpipers by directly interfering with their food sources, both invertebrate and fish. Land use planners must conserve wetlands, install vegetation buffers and route trails to discourage trampling and flushing of feeding and nesting shorebirds. Maintaining native vegetation and reducing pollution helps shorebirds find a healthy source of food crucial for the birds as a way to fatten during stops on their long migratory journeys between nesting and wintering grounds.


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