Wandering Tattler

Bird of the Month: Wandering Tattler

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (Wandering Tattler)

PC: Mick Thompson (Wandering Tattler)

Scientific Name: Heteroscelus incana

Length 11 in

Wingspan 26 in

Weight 3.9 oz

AOU Band code WATA

The Wandering Tattler (WATA) is about 11” long with a wingspan of 26” and a weight of 3.9 oz. (110g). The genus name Heteroscelus (heh-teh-ROSS-keh-lus) is from the Greek heteros, meaning “other” or “different”, and skelos, for “leg” which alludes to legs of this species being different from other sandpipers. The tarsus is scutellated instead of reticulated at the back. “Scutellated” is when the bare skin of the tarsus is a horny skin cut up into overlapping scales like shingles on a roof. “Reticulated” is when the skin is cut up into polygonal plates. The species name incana (in-CANE-ah) is Latin for gray. Wandering refers to wide distribution of this species. In the winter it is found along Pacific coastlines from North America to Australia. In summer it goes to high mountains in Alaska and northwestern Canada. In Washington it is a fairly common migrant on rocky shores, jetties on the outer coast. Best places to see them include Westport (where the photo was taken), Ocean Shore jetties and Ediz Hook. They are solitary birds, not found in flocks. 

The WATA is short-legged, long-winged, with a fairly long bill and yellow legs. Its bobbing movements and stiff-winged flight, similar to the Spotted Sandpiper, are distinctive. In the summer the WATA is gray above with underparts that have fine dark barring. In winter they are all gray with a whitish belly. In flight the birds are a plain dark gray above with no markings on the wings or tail. The tattlers forage more actively than other shorebirds of rocky coasts. They move quickly over rocks picking crustaceans, marine worms and mollusks from rocks or mats of algae. They also feed on insects on nesting grounds. Early in the breeding season, the male displays over the nesting habitat with a high flight while giving a whistled song. The alarm call is a series of clear notes on one pitch, a tattling call like “pew-tu-tu-tu-tu”. The nest site is a shallow depression on the ground among rocks or gravel near a mountain stream. It may be unlined, or  lined with small twigs, rootlets and dry leaves. There are usually four eggs, greenish-white with dark markings. Incubation is by both parents and takes 23-25 days. The downy young leave the nest soon after hatching. Both parents attend the young for about 1-2 weeks and then only one adult is present. The young feed themselves, following the parents along the stream, and they can swim well even when small. The age at first flight is not known.