Common Sandpipers’ Tail-Fanning & Raised-Wings Displays

posted in: Migration-Migrants, Waders | 1

“The migratory season is hotting up with the arrival of more and more migratory birds at end September 2012. On this stretch of river bed that had been exposed by the receding tide, some migratory waders were spotted. Two Common Sandpipers (Actitis hypoleucos) that were actively chasing each other, vying for territory, caught my attention.

“The Common Sandpipers were engaged in territorial fight. The individual that was doing the chasing pounced on its rival (above). The attacker had its wings fully out-stretched and tail fully fanned-out. Beautiful and intricate patterns, normally hidden, were exposed in a glorious display of its plumage. More ‘tail-fanning displays’ were later performed during subsequent interactions between the combative sandpipers. The fanning of tails were found to be in display by both the pursuer and the pursued during the pursuits (below). In addition, to appear intimidating, head would be stooped low and tail cocked or tilted towards its rival.

“A different display would be used when a sandpiper was defending its turf from an intruding bird. In the event of an intruding bird encroaching into its comfort zone, the ‘raised-wings display’ would be triggered. With wings fully out-stretched and raised vertically, the sandpiper would charge at the intruder. A sight to behold, the out-stretched wings would remain fully raised even as it raced towards the intruder (below). Both tail-fanning and raised-wing displays seemed to be expressed for intimidating rivals.

“When displays failed to intimidate, disputes escalated into fights. Only a few sparring sessions observed, but lots of chasing around with most avoiding fights by fleeing. Fights, when occurred, were fast and furious, on the ground or even in mid-air (below). Bills and feet were used as weapons. Physical contacts were definitely made but fortunately no casualties observed.

“It would seem that the newly arrived Common Sandpipers were in combative mood. At its peak, two pairs of Common Sandpipers were fighting separately about less than five metres apart. A solitary Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) was also in close proximity, at times only about two metres from the nearest Common Sandpiper (below). Despite the close range, the Wood Sandpiper was left alone by the Common Sandpipers. The Wood Sandpiper was also not interested to provoke any of the Common Sandpipers.

“It amazes me why the Common Sandpipers chose to quarrel with their own species but not with the Wood Sandpiper. Both species are quite similar and should have similar diets. Visually, the Wood Sandpiper appears to be slightly larger than the Common Sandpiper. Seemed strange that the Wood Sandpiper’s slight size advantage could deter the Common Sandpipers.”

Kwong Wai Chong
5th October 2012

  1. Hui Tin Yan

    We sort of saw this today (10/1/2013) in a fish pond of Mai Po Nature Reserve, Hong Kong. But as I remember there was no tail-fanning by the chaser… what we saw was a tug-of-war lasting for about several minutes that 2 birds sort of stucked their bills into each other feathers and moved in a circle… then they departed with 1 constantly chasing another. The chasing was continuous and lasted for at least 10 minutes.

    Parallel to your observation, the common sandpiper today was seemingly unaware of other sandpipers or wagtails which were also at its proximity, but it always focused at its conspecific. Surprisingly, the chased individual did not abandon the patch…it kept moving around but never flew too far, and therefore the chasing one also kept chasing.

    If this is for defending a feeding patch… why tolerating other spp. such as Marsh Sandpiper…?

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