Gray-tailed tattlers

Two gray tailed tattlers in Hong Kong, August 2020.

Description and Distribution

The grey-tailed tattler (Tringa brevipes), also known as Polynesian tattler, is a medium sized sandpiper that is mostly grey on the upperparts and cap, grey-streaked or dull grey underparts depending on whether it is breeding or not, and yellow legs. It is not strongly sexually dimorphic.

Grey-tailed tattlers breed in Siberia and migrate south along the coasts of China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, all the way to Austrailia and New Zealand. It is even a regular though infrequent visitor of Alaska.

The species is listed as nearly threatened due to the substantial decline in the adult population, with only 29,500 mature individuals estimated from 2016, but there may very well be fewer now. The main causes of their decline is of course habitat loss and pollution. These birds are currently being monitored by means of various tagging programs, so perhaps with more information, conservation efforts can be more effective. I haven’t yet seen one with a tag, though I do hope to someday so I can report it.

Grey-tailed Tattler

Ecology and Behavior

As a wader of the genus Tringa, gray-tailed tattlers forage along the muddy and sandy shores of coasts, picking off insects, crabs, and other invertebrates by sight. I’ve witnessed them using a strategy of picking up a crab and repeatedly lifting it into the air and slamming it on the ground in order to dismember it before eating.

They nest on the ground in riverbeds in Siberia but they are also able to perch. They spend their non-breeding months on the shores of the subtropical and tropical Pacific, being strongly migratory. They do not travel in large flocks, however, preferring to fly in smaller groups, such as the group of three pictured below.

Gray-tailed Tattler

Evolutionary History

Tattlers and shanks are most related to the very small genera of Actitis and Xenus, which combined only contain three species. They appear to have developed into modern genera in the early Miocene period (roughly 25-5 million years ago), though the fossil record is fragmentary and scarce.