A Purple Life Bird

On Friday I got a call at work from Bob Cermak who told me that he was looking at a Purple Sandpiper at Andrew Haydon Park. He knew I needed this bird for my life list, and it was with intense disappointment that I told him that I couldn’t escape from work to go see it. I just had to hope that it would still be there the following day.

When I arrived at the park early the next morning, I found one birder with his scope pointed at the Purple Sandpiper. I was thrilled that it was still there, although when I first looked through the scope it was so well-camouflaged that I couldn’t see it! Then he moved, and I saw the orange bill.

We moved closer to the bird, walking slowly so as not to startle it. When I was within camera range I started taking pictures. The light was terrible, but the bird was beautiful!

Purple Sandpiper (juvenile)

It was larger than I expected, a plump, medium-sized shorebird probing the rocky edge of the Ottawa River. Despite its name, there really is no purple in the bird’s plumage. In good lighting, however, winter-plumage birds may show a faint purplish gloss; there is no purple at all in its breeding plumage. Its bill is bright orange at the base, and it also has orange legs. A member of the genus Calidris (which includes the Red Knot, Sanderling, Least Sandpiper, and similar-looking “peeps”), the Purple Sandpiper looked to me like a cross between a winter-plumaged Ruddy Turnstone and a Pectoral Sandpiper. It also fed like a dowitcher, plunging its head completely beneath the water!

Purple Sandpiper feeding

The Purple Sandpiper breeds in the arctic tundra and is usually the last sandpiper to migrate in the fall. It has the northernmost winter range of any shorebird, spending the winter along rocky shores and man-made jetties of the Atlantic Coast.

I took some video of him feeding. He seemed to find lots of tasty tidbits among the rocks:

A crowd of birders and photographers had gathered by the time I was done. Purple Sandpipers are rare but regular migrants in the fall, but are generally not so cooperative. They are most often found along the jetties of Britannia Pier when the weather is poor, sometimes even in snowy conditions. I was lucky to be able to get such stunning, close-up views of this bird.

One of the other birders noticed another spectacular bird along the rocky shoreline – a Snowy Owl sitting at the end of the jetty at Britannia Pier! This was not only my first one of the fall, it was my first of the year, as they were largely absent from Ottawa last winter. I drove over to Jamieson Street where I had a much better view of the owl. It was still too far to get any decent photos, but I was happy nonetheless to pick up my second year-bird of the day.

  • Lifer #277 Purple Sandpiper
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