“D” is for Dunlin and Dark-eyed Junco: “D” Birds”, Part 2

“D” is for Dunlin and Dark-eyed Junco: “D” Birds”, Part 2

James J. S. Johnson


Dunlin (Calidris alpina) shorebirds, in winter snow!

For He saith to the snow: ‘Be thou on the earth’; likewise unto the small rain, and unto the great rain of His strength. JOB 37:6 

She is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet. PROVERBS 31:21

“D” is for Dunlin and Dark-eyed Junco, as well as for Doves, Dippers, and Ducks (some being dabblers, some being divers) — plus other birds with names that begin with the letter D, such as Dickcissel, Darter, Dotterel, Doradito, Dollarbird, Dacnis, Drongo, Dunnock, Dapple-throat, and even Dodo! Regarding the earlier article on “D” birds, in this ongoing series, focusing mostly on Duck (both Dabblers and Divers), see “D” is for Ducks, Dabblers and Divers: “D” Birds, Part 1. But this review will focus only on two, the Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).    And, as is noted below, there is a “snow” connection to both — (1) because the brown-and-grey Dunlin is a circumpolar migrant, breeding in the snow-blessed arctic and subarctic regions — and (2) because the migratory Dark-eyed Junco was formerly called (by Audubon and others) the “snowbird”.


Dunlin (Calidris alpina) adult

As noted elsewhere on Leesbird.com , the Dunlin is part of the short shorebird waders, called “Scolopacidae” (a subset of the “Charadriiformes”), that includes a mix of wading sandpipers, snipes, phalaropes, plovers, curlews, and the like. Part of an original sandpiper-like ancestral kind, Dunlins are reported to hybridize with North America’s White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis) and Europe’s Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima).


Dunlin (Calidris alpina) juvenile ©WikiC

These skinny-legged, starling-sized waders make a living, to a large degree, by probing and picking mudflat shorelines (including muddy estuaries, saltmarshes, sandy beaches, coastal lagoons, swampy coastlands, and sometimes rocky coastlines), for edible invertebrates — mostly insects (especially insect larvae) and worms (both polychaetes and oligochaetes), plus small crustaceans (like shrimp and amphipods) and molluscs (like snails, slugs, and small bivalves), and even some small fish — captured along seacoasts and/or at freshwater streambanks. The characteristic eating behavior of the thin-billed Dunlin has been likened to the rapid-feed pecking motion of an energetic sewing machine, as its slightly decurved bill jabs rapidly and repeatedly into mudflats, to pick at (and ingest) small animals captured on or under the shoreline surface. Dunlins sometimes dip their heads under water, as they wade belly-deep in coastal tidewaters. [For a short video clip of Dunlin feeding in shallow shorewaters,]


Dunlin (Calidris alpina) adult, wintering at a New Jersey beach ©WikiC

The Dunlin, like other sandpipers, is a gregarious migrant, as is illustrated by this photograph (taken in AD2015) of Dunlins in Sweden. Although the various Dunlin subspecies (which number 8 or 9, depending on taxonomic “lumping” and “splitting” preferences) are known to overlap (i.e., intermingle in) their ranges, especially in migratory passages and in wintering territories, they mostly breed within their respective subspecies populations. Dunlin breeding begins at one year of age; an entire Dunlin lifespan may reach 20 years.


Dunlin (Calidris alpina) group, congregating in shoreline tidewaters ©WikiC

The overall range of the Dunlin is impressive – its migratory habits includes breeding (during the warmer months) within many of the coastlines of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Siberian Russia – as well as wintering in coastlands of Mexico, America’s Southeast, Europe’s western coasts, some of the coastlands of northwestern Africa, and some southern coastlands of Asia (including eastern China, Japan, some of the Indian subcontinent, and the coastlines of southwestern Asia). According to the Australian government’s statistics, the Chinese East Coast-trekking Dunlin (which is not routinely found in Australia) is the second-most common shorebird traveling the East Asian—Australasian Flyway. [Source: Australian Government, Dep’t of the Environment, posted at http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=853 – under the heading “Global Distribution”. ]


Now for another “D” bird, the DARK-EYED JUNCO.


Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), f/k/a “Snow Bird” ©Drawing Audubon

Regarding my personal encounters with Dark-eyed Junco migrants, who habitually wintered in my backyard (in southern Denton County, Texas), see “Here’s Seed for Thought” [posted at https://leesbird.com/2015/07/04/heres-seed-for-thought/ ] – and also see my defense of trusting juncos and English sparrows, from a bullying Blue Jay, in “Bird Brains, Amazing Evidence of God’s Genius (Sometimes the Logic of Bird Brains Puts Humans to Shame)” [posted at https://leesbird.com/?s=bird+brains ].


Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) ©Kim Smith

The Dark-eyed Junco adult has a distinctively pink bill (which aptly consumes a lot of bugs and seeds, including seeds at bird-feeders!), the color of which contrasts with its black-to-dark-grey back feathers, and its snow-like (almost-white) under-plumage.   Regarding the wee bird’s wintering habits in Texas, ornithologist Stan Tekiela writes: “Spends the winter in the [Texas] foothills and plains after snowmelt. Nests in a wide variety of wooded habitats in April and May. Adheres to a rigid social hierarchy, with dominant birds chasing less dominant birds. Look for its white outer feathers flashing while in flight. Most comfortable on the ground [which is often a good place to forage for insects and seeds], juncos ‘double-scratch’ with both feet to expose seeds and insects. Eats many weed seeds. Usually seen on the ground in small flocks. Doesn’t nest [i.e., raise hatchlings] in Texas.” [Quoting Stan Tekiela, BIRDS OF TEXAS FIELD GUIDE (Adventure Publications, 2004), page 253.]

The migratory behavior of the Dark-eyed Junco, as its earlier nickname “Snow Bird” suggests, is appreciated by those who observe it during winter.   The ornithologist couple Donald and Lillian Stokes say: “Every fall we await the arrival of the ‘snow birds’ from the north where they breed. The name comes from the junco’s plumage, which has been described as ‘leaden skies above, snow below.’ This name more aptly describes the slate-colored form of junco. Ornithologists used to think there were four separate species of juncos, white-winged, slate-colored, Oregon, and gray-headed. Now they are all considered one species [that’s genetics for you!], the dark-eyed junco. We tend to think of them as ‘snow birds’ because we see them most when the snow is here. Juncos are a favorite at winter bird-feeding stations [such as my former home in southern Denton County, Texas – noted above] throughout the United States and lower Canada. Much of the study of juncos has been of their winter flock behavior. There is still a lot to be learned about their courtship and breeding behavior [which occurs farther north]. Juncos tend to winter at the same spot each year and stay in fixed flocks with a stable dominance hierarchy. …. At night juncos often roost in the same place. It is fun to follow the flock from your feeder to see where they will roost. Usually it will be in some dense conifer where they will be protected from cold and predators.” [Quoting Donald Stokes & Lillian Stokes, A GUIDE TO BIRD BEHAVIOR, VOLUME III (Little, Brown & Company, 1989), pages 327-328.]


Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), perching, as if posing for the camera!

God willing, the next contribution to this alphabetic series will be at least a couple of the “E“ birds – such as eiders, eagles, eagle-owls, egrets, emus, euphonias, elaenias, eremomelas, elepaios, earthcreepers, and/or emerald hummingbirds! Meanwhile, please stay tuned to Leesbird.com !  ><>  JJSJ

Fair Use Credit For Photos Used in Article (Click Links For Credits)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) shorebirds, in winter snow! — New Jersey Audubon

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) adult —  ©Wikipedia

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), f/k/a “Snow Bird” —  ©National Audubon Society

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) ©Kim Smith

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), perching, as if posing for the camera! — ©Vicki J. Anderson / arkive.org