There are five species of "peeps" but only a two show up regularly in Florida, and then only in the winter.
When we think of peeps, the first thing that comes to mind is those cute little yellow fuzz balls that grow up to be White Leghorns, or “chicken hawk” food, or chicken parmesan. Or we might think of those cute little yellow marshmallow imitation peeps that show up in a child’s Easter Basket.
But I still vividly recall the story from my depression-era early childhood that I now refer to as the “Parable of the Peep.” An unworthy peep was discarded by a farmer in a bucket of his friends and dumped into a barrel. He picked himself up only to discover that more of his friends were being dumped into the barrel on top of him. Nevertheless, he worked his way to the top of the new pile each time a new batch was dumped into the barrel on top of him, until (drum-roll) when the barrel was just about full and the farmer was about to put the lid on the barrel, the peep managed to jump out of the barrel and escape. The farmer, recognizing the peep’s strong will to live, returned him to the chicken house, where he lived happily ever after, siring many offspring and dozens of eggs. The End. What!? You never heard that story!? Come on, it has all the elements of a morality play: abject rejection; bare survival; determined struggle; strong striving; ultimate success and final recognition. Never mind the unreality of the plot, it’s a natural for Hollywood.
But when it comes to the world of birds, (or at least the North American part of that world) “peeps” refers to five species of diminutive sandpipers: Least, Western, Semipalmated, White-rumped, and Baird’s. For all you ever wanted to know about these peeps, see: http://www.aba.org/birding/v40n4p32.pdf Sibley calls the first three “Small Peeps” and the last two “Large Peeps,” while the reference article designates the last two as “long-winged peeps.”
For birders in Florida, it really doesn’t matter much, for only the Least (right) and the Western (above, left) are likely to be encountered in Florida, and only in the winter at that. And they are easy to tell apart: the Least is smaller and has yellow legs; and the Western is slightly larger and has black legs. Of course, the larger Sanderling (left), and even larger Dunlin may sometimes cause confusion, when seen at a distance, or not under optimal viewing conditions. But the Sanderling has a heavier, stockier bill than any of the peeps, and the Dunlin is significantly larger with a longer down-curved bill.
At Cape May, New Jersey, and along the Delaware Bay shore, and particularly at Heislerville, NJ, during the spring migration, tens of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers (right) gorge on the horseshoe crab eggs, along with the Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones. Least Sandpipers are pretty common, and there are also a few White-rumped Sandpipers. Baird’s are unusual and strictly a fall migrant in New Jersey, as Baird’s Sandpipers are primarily Central Flyway migrants both spring and fall. White-rumped Sandpipers are distinguished from both Least and Semipalmated by the larger size, longer wings, which project beyond the tail, streaking on the flanks, and an absolutely diagnostic field mark: red on the base of the lower mandible (bill) in all plumages. All of these field marks are visible in the attached White-rumped Sandpiper (left) photo.
So there you have it, as you push your way to the top, and success, in peep identification, like the peep in the parable, keep in mind: In Florida, in winter the only peeps are Least, yellow legs, and Western, black legs. And in New Jersey in the spring the only peeps are Least, yellow legs; Semipalmated, black legs; and White-rumped, larger size, longer tail, streaks on flanks, and red base of lower mandible. And, also like the peep in the parable, when you have mastered those few details, you too can live happily ever after. The offspring and dozens of eggs is another matter though. (1/11/14)