Editor's Note: Analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequences in members of the shorebird tribe Tringini has shown that the genus Heteroscelus is embedded within Tringa and should be merged into it. Thus the 47th Supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union's Checklist of North American Birds now recognizes Wandering Tattler as Tringa incana. Future revisions of this account will reflect this change.
“ . . . it will probably be a matter of but a few years before full knowledge of its nesting habits is obtained .”
Grinnell et al. 1918, The Game Birds of California
The esteemed naturalist Joseph Grinnell penned these words following a spate of observations of tattlers from what he perceived to be the species' breeding grounds. Indeed, 5 years later in the same general area as predicted by Grinnell, colleagues Olaus and Adolph Murie collected the first nest and eggs of the species. What Grinnell and numerous other ornithologists to follow could not predict was that the dearth of information about this species would continue for the next 75 years. To this day the Wandering Tattler remains one of North America's least known birds.
Maybe more so than any other shorebird, the Wandering Tattler possesses a suite of peculiar natural-history traits that has challenged ornithologists since the species was first described in the late eighteenth century. For the majority of the year this medium-sized shorebird is essentially solitary, occurring as individuals or in groups of 2 or 3 along continental and insular shores throughout all but the most southern portions of the Pacific Ocean basin. The combination of an unusually small population size (probably in the few tens of thousands), a uniformly slate-gray plumage color, and a penchant for inhabiting substrates of similar background color, makes this shorebird seemingly disappear from most human-occupied landscapes during the non-breeding season.
The species' northward migration from the vast Pacific basin peaks during April and May and funnels into a comparatively restricted breeding range encompassing Alaska and portions of northwest Canada and the Russian Far East. Within this area, the tattler nests solitarily in montane habitats, particularly ones shaped by glacial events. Conventional thought has been that nests are placed on sparsely vegetated riverine gravel bars or adjacent rocky substrates. Recent studies indicate that while tattlers focus much of their daily activity (flight displays, foraging) about such areas, actual nests are just as often placed on tundra or sparsely vegetated ground many hundreds of meters removed from rivers and streams. After their initial arrival on the breeding grounds, when they engage in elaborate and vocal flight displays, tattlers generally do not betray their presence again until late in the nesting period, when they become highly vocal and defensive of their chicks. By August and September, most individuals are migrating south, with adults preceding juveniles on flights that can cross more than 12,000 kilometers of mostly open ocean.
Published information about the Wandering Tattler is limited and occurs mainly within annotated species accounts in numerous avifaunal treatments. The most thorough general summaries of tattler biology occur in Paulson 1993 for North America and in Higgins and Davies 1996 for Oceania-Australasia. Only a dozen North American popular or scientific articles include the species' name in the title, and more than half of these concern discovery of nests (Osgood 1907; Murie Murie 1923, Murie 1924a; Dixon 1933a; Weeden Weeden 1959a, Weeden 1965b) or treat identification or unusual occurrence (Wizeman 1972, Gibson 1978a, Paulson 1986). Outside the Americas, studies have reported on molt (Holyoak 1974b, Prater and Marchant 1975, Kinsky and Yaldwyn 1981, Johnson and Johnson 1983), migration physiology (Johnson and Morton 1976), foods (Lacan and Mougin 1974b), reproductive condition (Johnson 1973b), and identification (Shigeta 1991). No detailed study of tattler breeding biology or behavior has been conducted, although significant new information has recently been gathered from study sites in sw. Alaska (Gill et al. 1999b, REG, BJM, PST).