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Wandering Tattler Life History



Wandering Tattlers breed in rugged landscapes in Alaska, the Yukon, and the Russian Far East, most often where montane tundra is cut by rivers and streams. Many nesting areas are in places where ancient glaciers have scoured out valleys, creating a mosaic of ponds, lakes, and rock fields. Here, stony upland tundra often abuts moist sedge meadows, and tall shrubs line complex networks of waterways. Some tattlers nest in coastal lowlands, especially ones with gravel beds, but most nest higher, up to 4,000 feet elevation. In places where streambed deposits have been mined and large areas of waste residue (tailings) have been left behind, tattlers sometimes nest because of the resemblance to glacially deposited stone. Although they forage along rivers and lakeshores, tattlers often place the nest in drier, more upland locations such as tundra with scattered dwarf shrubs (birch, willow), mountain avens, Labrador tea, mountain heather, pincushion plant, and lichens.

In the nonbreeding season, on the Pacific coast of North America, Wandering Tattlers inhabit rocky intertidal zones, including small islands, reefs, and human-made structures such as jetties and breakwaters. Migrants often turn up on small lakes near the ocean and in estuaries. In Asia and in the Pacific Islands, wintering tattlers use many of the same habitats as wintering Spotted Sandpipers. Tattlers frequent stony coastlines (including coral reefs) here, but they forage in rivers, lakes, lagoons, high-elevation wetlands, plantations, airports, golf courses, buildings, even the interior of coastal forests.

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Aquatic invertebrates

Wandering Tattlers eat insects and other invertebrates in both freshwater and marine environments. They are mostly visual hunters, walking along haltingly and looking into the water and rock crevices for prey. They also flip over leaves or algae and probe into mud or sand for hidden prey. In ponds and streams, they sometimes wade deeply into the water and submerge the head. On beaches, they run back and forth with the waves, like Sanderlings, when hunting small crabs. With larger prey, they often beat the item against a rock before swallowing it. On the breeding grounds, tattlers eat flying insects, some of which they capture by leaping into the air, but they eat most insects by picking them off rocks, vegetation, ice, or the water’s surface. Their prey includes stoneflies, crane flies, caddisflies, brine flies, dung flies, kelp flies, blow flies, midges, earwigs, water scavenger beetles, ground beetles, leaf beetles, diving beetles, parasitic wasps, polychaete worms, centipedes, snails, periwinkles, small mollusks, scuds (amphipods of genus Gammarus), brine shrimp, common grapsid crab, ghost crab, fiddler crabs, rock crabs, shore crabs, mangrove crabs, small fish such as freshwater sculpin, and small reptiles such as snake-eyed skink. They occasionally eat plants such as moss, algae, and coconut.

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Nest Placement

GroundNests are set on the ground, usually among pebbles, scree, or boulders, or in areas with stunted vegetation, often near mountain streams near tundra.

Nest Description

Nests are depressions in the ground lined with twigs and leaves, including willow, mountain avens, Labrador tea, and lichen. Nests measure on average about 5.1 inches across, with interior cup 3.7 inches across and 2 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Egg Description:Eggs are pale green or gray, to olive with irregular brown blotches concentrated at the larger end.
Condition at Hatching:Downy chicks, able to feed themselves.
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Wandering Tattlers have a complex breeding system. Like other shorebirds, they perform flight displays soon after arriving on the breeding grounds. Their flights may take place over streams or other wetland foraging sites, with one bird (presumed male; the sexes look identical) rising up on trembling wings, singing while flying, and then adding maneuvers: a slow-flapping display (“bat” flight), gliding, diving, hovering, undulating, and a stunning twisting dive (termed “crazy” flight). These elements make the flight displays of Wandering Tattler some of the most elaborate among shorebirds. On returning to the ground, the displaying bird often raises two wings high above the back. The function of these flights may simply be to attract a mate rather than to claim territory, as conflicts between tattlers are rare.

On the ground, a female may approach a displaying male and solicit mating. Males respond with calling and posturing—fanning and cocking the tail, extending the neck, and puffing up the plumage. The two birds may walk in parallel together as they court. Contrary to most other shorebirds, the Wandering Tattler’s display areas are often separate from nesting areas: in many cases, they display over aquatic habitats but nest in tundra, sometimes several miles away. Studies of color-banded tattlers indicate that both male and female share incubation and chick-rearing duties but females depart before the young fledge, leaving the male to care for them. Some pairs reunite in successive nesting seasons, but this is not always the case. Wintering tattlers often defend a feeding territory, using warning displays and attacks to drive away other tattlers attempting to forage in their territory.

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Restricted Range

Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population of Wandering Tattler at 18,000 and rates the species a 14 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. They include it on the Yellow Watch List for species with restricted ranges. The main threat to their survival is probably habitat loss due to climate change, as increasing shrub growth in the Arctic will reduce the open tundra habitats where they nest. Sea-level rise is also a concern, especially for their wintering areas.

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Gill, Robert E., Brian J. McCaffery and Pavel S. Tomkovich. (2002). Wandering Tattler (Tringa incana), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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