Baird Sandpiper migration

Andy Stepniewski steppie at
Thu Nov 8 07:06:20 PST 2001


A recent mini-thread on the fall occurrence of Baird's Sandpipers in the
mountains prompted me to look into my notes. While working as a seasonal
Park Naturalist in the Black Tusk area of
Garbaldi Provincial Park (~ 70 miles north of Vancouver BC) in the 1970s, I
observed Baird's Sandpipers around alpine lake edges on a number of
occasions. I summarized these observations with some annotations in a report
on a hike I did on Mt. Rainier I did in 1991. So, herewith is the entire
recount of a hike to Panhandle Gap on the east
slopes of Mt. Rainier, with information on the fall migration route of this

22 SEPTEMBER, 1991

EARLY START! Ike Eisenhart, Pete Krier and myself met at 6 am at the
Fryingpan Creek parking area on Mt. the trip to subalpine parkland at
beautiful Summerland. Perhaps we would go on to Panhandle Gap in the zone of
rock, snow and ice.

For the first half hour, it was dark and Ike beamed a flashlight for us to
hike by, spooked once by an unknown but hefty sounding beast crashing
through the downed logs. Thereafter I yelped to alert denizens of the
forest ,thus warning of our presence. I hooted too, thinking the terrain
was suitable for a Spotted Owl and the time of day right also.

We made good progress, reaching Summerland in two hours with the first beams
of sun warming our backs and melting the hard ground frost. A lady walked
up from the small camping area and greeted us as we snacked in the sun. She
expressed surprise on learning we had left the road only a few hours
earlier. She gawked in amazement when we told her Pete and I had left
Yakima at 4 am and Ike Seattle at that hour also. Hikers don't understand a
birders schedule!

Birds were very few on the ascent: we heard the first chatterings of Red
Crossbills and Chestnut-backed Chickadees and lispings from Golden-crowned
Kinglets. We made such good time because the woods were so quiet and still
dark. There was little to distract us. Hiking up the trail, we spooked a
good-sized elk and seven deer, including one fawn that was still somewhat
spotted. From Summerland, we watched 5-6 mountain goats grazing in the
morning sun on aptly named Goat Island Mountain.

WAY TO PANHANDLE GAP. Though Summerland is one of those storybook subalpine
settings complete with tree islands, meadows and craggy vistas, our sights
were set higher. Panhandle Gap lies more than 3 km farther on the
Wonderland Trail. In all my visits to Summerland, I had never gone on to
this very alpine portion of the trail.

As we hiked higher, I was very surprised to note the very abrupt change in
landscape just above Summerland. It seemed we rounded a bend in the trail
and were amidst moraines and fairly desolate terrain. What a contrast from
the very lush and beautiful landscape of Summerland!

But...looking closer...all was not barren. Numerous tourquoise-hued tarns
at the foot of several receeding glacierets invited us to take a slow pace
through the bouldery terrain. Recolonization by flora and fauna was evident
with sedge and rush flats, interspersed with willow herb, snow willows and
two species of monkeyflowers.

Although the White-tailed Ptarmigan once again proved elusive, American
Pipits were more obliging, along with one or two Savannah Sparrows hiding
among the willow herbs. I mentioned to Ike the sandy edges of these tarns
would likely host Baird's Sandpipers earlier in their migration, as I have
noted on occasion in such habitats in the British Columbia Coast Mountains.

GOATS GALORE! The steep slopes just short of Panhandle Gap were
reconnoitered by Pete while Ike and I combed the tarn edges for ptarmigan.
When we met again, we all agreed to go to Panhandle Gap, where Pete had
spotted another 25+ mountain goats. Ike and Pete helped me across a short
icy stretch and then we hit Panhandle Gap, a col through which the
Wonderland Trail cuts.

What a difference at the gap! While the approach through the north-facing
morainal country was sparsely vegetated, greenery and krummholz ascended the
to the gap on Panhandle Gaps south slopes.

We found the goats again; many were sunning on meadowy slopes to the east
this fall afternoon. We could see another group to the south plus the 10 or
so on Goat Island Mountain-this made a total of about 40 on our trip today.

>From the gap, we noted:

Cooper's Hawk-1 sailing over
Red-tailed Hawk-2 sailing over
Horned Lark-15, foraging on alpine terrain akin to that on Burroughs
American Pipit-10
Common Raven-1
Clark's Nutcracker-1 cruising south
Yellow-rumped Warbler-1 in subalpine fir krummholz
Pine Siskin-1, the only siskin of the day

We agreed this was a spectacular place and worthy of further exploration.
South on the Wonderland Trail, the country appeared interesting. Time for a
backpack, where the Ohanapecosh Park country beckons.

the tarns, we again detoured in hopes of finally stumbling upon a ptarmigan.
Pete had spied a shorebird, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a very
bright juvenile Baird's Sandpiper on a tarns edge. It was a life bird for
Ike who lingered for some moments studying, at very close range, this
tame-appearing bird.

Although the Baird's Sandpiper is commonly met with at low elevation
shorebird sites in migration, there is evidence many utilize a high altitude

We also checked the wet meadows grown to Mimulus south of Summerland for a
ptarmigan, throughly combing the mosaic of wet meadow and bouldery terrain.
We even employed a playback tape in hopes of a response. This was my fourth
serious attempt for this bird this year. As Terry Wahl has mentioned:
"Tourists stumble on them without trying. Serious birders, on the other
hand, in quest of this species, often strike out."

AUTUMN COLORS IN THE UPPER FRYINGPAN. Retreating from the flowery paridise
of Summerland into the avalanche-scoured shrub habitats of Fryingpan Creek,
we were surprisedat the intensity of the fall colors, it having been pretty
dark on the ascent. Mountain ash, gooseberries, blueberries, and hellebore
lent lots of color to the landscape. The fall migration of passerines
through the shrubbery seemed mostly over; I noted only a few Winter Wrens.

INTO THE LOWLAND CATEDRAL FORESTS. It was mid-afternoon before we reached
the grand lowland forests of lower Fryingpan Creek. I commented on the
diversity of habitats encountered on the trail to Panhandle Gap, of which
Ike was interested. To summarize:

1-Lowland western hemlock with scattered patriarchial douglas fir clothe the
lower areas, a classic and priceless Pacific Northwest old growth forest

2-Upwards is a forest dominated by silver fir and western hemlock of a lower
stature than that below, evidence of t`he harsher climate at higher

3-Thence avalanche-prone slopes with distinctive stunted conifers and
abundant shrubs including willow, mountain ash and blueberries, at this
season painting the vistas with fall colors.

4-The closed subalpine is encountered on the final push to Summerland, where
silver fir and magnificent mountain hemlocks densely mantle the permanently
seep-ridden north slopes. A wet subalpine understory of white rhododendron
thrives here.

5-Summerland is in the subalpine parkland zone, characterized by subalpine
fir and occasional whitebark pine forming tree islands, surrounded by lush,
herbaceous meadows. Wet alpine communities clothe a seep area south and
above Summerland west of the trail, an area we combed for ptarmigan without

6-Just a short distance above Summerland, on the trail, a barren alpine
terrain is encountered, enlivened with significant vegetation only about the
tarns below relict glaciers, where sedges, rushes, willow herb and
monkeyflowers are encountered.

7-The south slopes of Panhandle Gap allow upper subalpine vegetation to
extend much higher than in the icy cirque basin on the gap's north side.
Here, krummholz occur, but much more prevalent are alpine cushion
communities typical of Mt. Rainier's snow shadowed northeast slopes.

Note 1. Regarding its autumn migration, Campbell et al (Birds of British
Columbia, Royal British Columbia Museum, 1990, p. 190) discuss the status of
the Baird's Sandpiper north of Washington. J. R. Jehl (The autumnal
migration of Baird's Sandpiper. Studies in Avian Biology 2:55-68) dispels
the myth the Baird's Sandpiper "often travels the full length of the
treeless back bone of both continents."

Campbell goes on to say: There is, however, evidence that the Baird's
Sandpiper does occur in alpine habitats more regularly than any other
Calidrine. Such records include a flock of 17 feeding in a glacial stream at
1,950 m on Mount Tatlow, 2 birds picking insects at the edge of a cirque at
1,900 m in the headwaters of the Murray River, and 1 foraging on a snowbank
at 2,400 m in Cathedral Park; all 3 records are from mid-summer.

I also have the following records from alpine tarns and glaciers from
Garibaldi Park:

25 August, 1972 - 7 on the shore of Helm Lake (1,890 m), with extensive
cinder flats and relict glacier at south end.
27 August, 1972- 5+ seen near above location.
11 August, 1973 - 10+, Helm Lake.
18 August, 1973 - 9 on Helm Lake.
20 August, 1973 - 5 feeding on dead insects on snowfields between Glacier
Pikes and unnamed peaks to west, 2,000 m.
20 August, 1973 - 8, Sentinel Glacier moraines.
31 August, 1973 - 4, Warren Glacier moraines.

These data, coupled with the scarcity of other Calidridine records in the
alpine-I noted only several Western Sandpipers on 8 August, 1973- during my
two summers in Garibaldi Park in 1972 and '73, allow me to state the Baird's
Sandpiper is indeed a regular and perhaps fairly common autumn migrant in
the alpine zone of the Pacific Northwest. Habitats which it favor in our
mountains include tarns associated with retreating glaciers, snow-covered
glaciers and braided streams that form the outwash of glaciers.

Records from American Birds in the 1980's from the Olympics and Cascades
also substantiate my observations.

Andy Stepniewski
Wapato WA
Steppie at

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