Ballona Institute & Wetlands Action Network
322 Culver Blvd., Suite 317
Playa del Rey, California 90293
On September 16, 1923, Mr. Ralph Hoffman and the writer located two of these birds at the Del Rey marshes near Los Angeles. They were deliberate in action and showed none of the wariness attributed by some writers to the species, allowing us to study them at 25 to 30 yards as long as we pleased. Neither was taken, but close inspection with binoculars, and long familiarity with the species in the East, make mistake in identification to our minds, impossible. - L.E. Wyman, Los Angeles Museum, Los Angeles, October 13, 1923.
The Pectoral Sandpiper is a rare migratory bird on the Pacific coast of California. This sandpiper occurs in southern California primarily during its southward migration from northern Alaska and Canada's arctic tundra to South America on the Pacific Migratory Pathway. Although most of these ultra-long distance migrants travel south and north following the Mississipi River Valley, in some years hundreds come through southern California. It is almost always young birds that were just born in Canada and Alaska that migrate through Los Angeles. The mature adults migrate through the midwestern United States. According to the literature, the Pectoral Sandpiper prefers flooded fields and the high tide margins of coastal wetland marshes. These high areas are where development pressures are great. At Ballona, the highest marshes and flooded fields at Jefferson and Lincoln were destroyed in 2001 for a pollution detention basin of a new proposed development. They call this area a freshwater marsh and it is now not going to be an area that is used by the Pectoral Sandpiper anymore.
It is amazing that the two naturalists at their respective museums were able to document this bird with their binoculars. They also had experience of knowing this sandpiper from their observations in the midwest. Current ornithology scientists have moved the Pectoral Sandpiper into the genus with the Knot, Sanderling, Stints, and three "peeps" known as Calidris. The Pectoral Sandpiper was also shifted by ornithologists to a new species so that today it is known as Caladris melanotos.
The Pectoral Sandpiper is not as rare on the Pacific coast as once reported because Don Roberson did not include it in his book, Rare Birds of the Pacific Coast. In fact, Ralph Hoffmann, in his 1927 book, Birds of the Pacific States, reported that it can be seen by the patient bird student of marshes along the coast. Ralph Hoffmann wrote the following passage about the Pectoral Sandpiper:
"A persistent student visiting regularly the marshy shores of sloughs may see in July or August a sandpiper smaller than a Killdeer, with centers of the feathers forming dark brown or blackish lines down the back, separated from one another by chestnut and whitish edgings. The white throat, when it shows, is sharply separated from the breast, which is finely streaked and heavily washed with buff. The bird is rather phlegmatic as compared with the smaller sandpipers, and often stands with neck erect or half squats. When startled it utters a sharp kreek, kreek. The richer colors of the back distinguish the Pectoral from the Baird Sandpiper, which has a clay-brown back with no chestnut edgings of the feathers. The Pectoral is in general found in or near grassy or sedgy cover, while the Baird is generally a bird of the open flats or beaches."
Ralph Hoffmann described its status as of 1927 in California as follows: "Rather rare migrant along the coast, chiefly in the fall (middle of August - October); two spring records (April)."
More than 50 years later, a clearer picture of the geographic status has emerged of the Pectoral Sandpiper in southern California. For example, in 1981, Kimball Garrett and Jon Dunn in their book, Birds of Southern California, report it as an "uncommon fall transient." And these two fine birders report it as rare to casual in spring because of 11 records of its sighting in spring months. It is interesting that between 1927 and 1981 (54 years) the number of records only went from 2 to 11. The intervening 54 years only added nine sightings in spring for southern California. This bird is truly rare to find in spring migration in southern California. It would appear that the Pectoral Sandpiper when it leaves South America in their summer-fall (February-March), it is very sure in its migration to stay in the Mississipi River valley as it heads north to Alaska and Canada. Here then is a bird that may be classed as somewhat mistaken or lost when it migrates along the Pacific coast to stop at Ballona. However, perhaps during global warming or in the Ice Ages, it migrated along the Pacific coast rather than through the midwest. It is the best strategy to save the wetlands on both the Pacific coast and midwest U.S.
Ralph Hoffmann was in his 51st year of life in 1923 (February-March) when he observed the Pectoral Sandpiper at the Ballona wetlands. Undoubtedly, the editor of Condor, Joseph Grinnell, kept a written correspondence with L.E. Wyman and Ralph Hoffmann. It is well known that Joseph Grinnell kept meticulous files of all correspondence. The files are archived in Berkeley at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology of the University of California. This would be an interesting avenue of research to conduct at the University of California. We might learn more of the deep philosophy of birds of California by studying the written correspondence between Ralph Hoffmann, L.E. Wyman, and Joseph Grinnell from 1919, when Ralph Hoffmann moved to California, until 1932 when he died from his accident. To conduct this research at the University of California in Berkeley requires travel time, car rental, lodging, gasoline expense, phone calls for appointment scheduling at the Museum, and time-off from my regular scheduled work assignments. Won't you please fund the Wetlands Action Network so that this important natural history research can be conducted.