Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, December 6, 1999

Sea birds often
forced to take flight

LAST week, I took a walk on a North Shore beach and was soon following the tracks of a wandering tattler. The delicate three-toed marks of this migratory shorebird look like the type of flower petals a person might stencil along the edges of walls for decoration.

I traced the pretty tracks for a while, then abruptly they disappeared. A few yards down the beach, another set of tracks told the tale: A running dog had chased the bird away.

This story in the sand reminded me of an East Coast study I once read in which researchers counted the number of times per day a group of shorebirds flew off to avoid jogging humans and running dogs.

The scientists calculated that the energy-intense flights were so numerous, the birds could barely eat enough to stay alive.

By Susan Scott, Star-Bulletin
A wandering tattler on Oahu's North Shore.

But at least birds have the ability to fly off. Sand crabs, a favorite prey of some dogs in my neighborhood, aren't so lucky. The dogs chase crabs into their holes, then dig furiously until the crab lies pawed to death beside its wrecked home.

As I walked down the beach, the tattler's tracks reappeared, literally, from thin air. A few steps later, I saw the bird itself, probing the sand for invertebrates with its long beak, its tail bobbing busily in the process.

WHAT to do? If I continued walking, I would startle the bird into flying and thus waste its precious energy avoiding me. But I wanted to keep going. This was an important hour of exercise for me after a long, sedentary day.

I stopped and watched the bird. To my surprise, it began scratching the side of its head with its foot like a dog, except the bird performed this maneuver while balancing perfectly on one leg.

Having relieved its itch, the tattler raised a yellowish leg in a graceful stance and eyed me for a few seconds. Apparently I posed little threat because the bird soon resumed its run-and-probe search for food.

Wandering tattlers arrive in the tropics in August, spend the winter, then return to Alaska or northern Canada in April or May to breed. Unlike the plovers, however, tattlers don't stand tall. Rather, they hold head and neck in a distinct horizontal position.

Tattlers are well-named. Their call, usually uttered in flight, is a clear trill: oo-li-li-li-li, which sounds like their Hawaiian name, 'ulili. To me, these birds sound like the signal on my answering machine.

Slowly, I continued my walk down the beach -- and so did the bird. The tattler ran along the shoreline ahead of me stopping occasionally to peck the sand. When it stopped, so did I. Then we walked some more.

Eventually, I had to get around the bird to get home. I walked high up the beach and skirted some bushes until I passed the now-wary bird. It did not fly away, however, but simply watched me tiptoe past, then resumed eating.

I was impressed that this smart little shorebird flew off when a dog approached but saved its strength when I passed closely by. I'm looking forward to our next walk.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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