It was sunny and breezy yesterday, and at Iona Beach Regional Park a lot of families were enjoying the wide views of the Georgia Strait. The tide was high and there was not much beach in evidence. Mixed flocks of small sandpipers, or “peeps” as birders call them, were skimming the water’s edge looking for a bit of shoreline to feed on. The plumages were all mixed up, with juveniles, post-breeding moults, and still colourful adults among them. I spotted Western Sandpipers and Least Sandpipers, but there may also have been some Semipalmated Sandpipers there too. A slightly larger Spotted Sandpiper flew in giving its distinctive call and landed on some mud, wagging its tail end up and down. The peeps all seemed very agitated and would not settle for long in any one place. Every now and then, small flocks flew up and whirled around in their dashing flight, showing first white then dark as they twisted from side to side. This is usually the sign of a predator among them, and sure enough, a Merlin shot through the panicked birds, its sharp wings drawn back, heading for the kill. It missed that time but kept chasing the sandpipers around, so they couldn’t stop and feed. Merlins are small dark falcons, not as large as Peregrine Falcons, but deadly for small peeps. They keep them on the move until one of the migrating birds tires or miscalculates.
The peeps have come from Alaska and the Yukon and are on their way to Central and South America. It is amazing that these tiny little birds can travel so far, and even more amazing to know that typically the adults fly south first, followed by the young of the year later in the summer. The navigation is incredible and the dangers en route are many.