For some birds, fall migration begins in late summer with some species finishing up their migration before others start. One of the early migrating birds is the pectoral sandpiper. Pectoral sandpipers (Calidris melanotos) are usually seen in San Diego beginning in mid to late August and are frequently seen in the area through October. They have been seen as early as July. Pectoral sandpipers are considered migratory throughout most of United States and Canada east of the Rockies, but some make it into western California and Baja California. This year, they've already been spotted in the San Diego South Bay.
Pectoral sandpipers breed high in arctic Canada and Alaska and winter throughout South America. They are about the size of a killdeer, about 9 inches long, with long yellow legs, brown body, and a buffy, streaked chest. They are much larger than most of the small sandpipers one usually sees in the San Diego area such as the least and western sandpiper and slightly larger than dunlins. In the arctic, they are known to inflate their chest and do elaborate courtship displays. Males often leave the nesting area soon after the eggs are laid so as not to compete with food sources for mother and young. Females often leave several weeks before their chicks are fully grown. This bird was said to be extremely abundant during the nineteenth century, but numbers were reduced greatly due to market hunting. They were called the “grass snipe” because of the call they made.
People who have spotted this sandpiper in the San Diego area note that the bird is not too difficult to identify due to its unusual size and slightly different brown coloration. They tend to stick to mud flats and grassy areas and may be far from any viewing area or obstructed by vegetation. They usually associate with other small and medium sandpipers who are feeding on the same insects.