Spotted Sandpiper

The Spotted Sandpiper is the most widespread Sandpiper that breeds in North America, ranging from the east to the west, from the north to the south of the continent. They are highly adaptive to their surrounding environments and occupy nearly all sorts of habitats that are near water. From coastal areas to the banks of rivers, these birds are almost everywhere so long as there is a waterbody around them.

About Spotted Sandpipers

These birds are also infamous for being very difficult to accurately identify. Although they occur almost everywhere in North America, their unassuming appearances and unique gait confuse observers. Their habits of often breeding far away from shorelines also make them seem very different from conventional shorebirds. They are also rarely ever in flocks, even during the breeding seasons when they are exceptionally common.

Spotted Sandpipers are lovely birds that incite curiosity within birders and non-birders alike. They are unique and one of the most memorable birds. Thus, the topic for today’s discussion is going to be the elegant Spotted Sandpipers.

● Spotted Sandpiper Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Spotted Sandpiper Size, Eating Behavior, Habitat
● Spotted Sandpiper Range and Migration, Nesting


Spotted Sandpiper Color Pattern

The breeding plumages of these birds are brownish to olive-gray up top, with white underparts that have black spots. Females generally have larger spots that extend farther down the lower belly than those of males, but otherwise, the two sexes look alike in plumage. These spots are unlike the breeding plumages of any other bird. Their
non-breeding plumages are more unassuming, with grayer upperparts that have little to no marks, and white underparts that only have light spots except for the vent. During flight, they have a plain rump and tail that is barred on the outer tail feather only, along with a white wing stripe that is not visible when they are perched. Juveniles look similar to nonbreeding adults but have grayish throats. Their brown upper parts are also barred with lighter brown to bronze marks. These birds also have relatively long, yellow legs that stand out.

Description and Identification

These birds are generally alone or in pairs along the shores of lakes, rivers, and streams. They only occasionally visit coastal shorelines. During the breeding season, their spotted plumes are an unmistakable trait that identifies them, although they are harder to identify during the other seasons. Their teetering gait is also another trait that makes it easy to spot them. Their fluttering wingbeats low over the water combined with the aforementioned points are a sure-fire way to spot them in their natural habitats.

Spotted Sandpiper Song

Most calls by these birds are variations of the same call, differing mostly in pitch, intensity, and rate according to context. While aggressive calls are louder and more high-pitched, calls used by parents to the chicks are generally softer and lower. Although males and females have the same vocal range, females tend to have calls of lower frequencies.

The alarm calls consist of simple “weet weet” and “peet peet peet”, given when they are on the ground or in flight. These calls are also uttered when the bird is flushed from the nest but are generally extended significantly. If alarmed by an intruder, these calls change to a metallic “spink spink” if the chicks are present. Contact calls from parents to chicks are similar but are a soft “wheet, peet peet”, with repeated “kerrwee, kurrrrweeeee” notes. The young generally respond to these with simple “peet peet” sounds. If the chicks in danger, this sound changes to a “seep”.

When incubating adults are surprised at a very close range, they give out loud rodent-like squeals, sounds that are similar to a mammal in pain. The squeal consists of repeated grating calls that are composed of wide-frequency noises. These calls are also given with the broken wing act adults sometimes do to lure predators away from the nest. Breeding birds walking to their nest also gave a distinct “pink pink pink” that is sometimes in songs during courtship.

Spotted Sandpiper Size

Spotted Sandpipers are small shorebirds that have a body length of 7.1–7.9 inches and an approximate weight of 1.2–1.8 ounces. Their bill is slightly shorter than their head, and their body seems to taper down to their tail. Spotted Sandpiper’s rounded breast makes it seem like they are leaning forward constantly. Their wings are relatively long with a wingspan of 14.6–15.8 inches.

Spotted Sandpiper Behavior

These birds are mainly terrestrial, choosing to walk along shorelines and sometimes perching in trees or poles. They have a pronounced gait, teetering with their entire body bobbing up and down like a seesaw while they are walking or standing still. This teetering increases in frequency when the bird is nervous and agitated, generally only ceasing during times of alarm, courtship, or aggression. The function of this teetering is still unknown, but it is interesting regardless. They are also strong fliers that rapidly flutter their wings even when they are flying long distances. The reason behind this is a modification that allows them to remain close to the surface of the water even while in flight. They also occasionally swim, diving into shallow depths and swimming underwater to escape predators or to avoid harassment from other birds.

Spotted Sandpipers are fiercely aggressive, with the first instances of aggression appearing within the first two weeks after hatching. These aggressive behaviors are far more pronounced during the breeding seasons, where competition between females to find a mate is fierce. Females may physically fight each other, with direct physical contact accounting for over half the total fight. These fights may continue for up to an hour and usually result in injuries to the legs, eyes, and wings. Females also chase and harass their mates when males temporarily stop incubating and leave the nest. Males also fight each other when there is a shortage of mates and to defend their young. Unrelated adults often cause severe injuries to chicks that are not theirs.

Younger birds are monogamous, with females and males sharing incubation and brooding duties equally. However, as the birds get older, polyandry becomes the primary form of mating meaning that females acquire multiple mates and generally abandon all brooding duties. Females may either pair with multiple males at the same time or may abandon one mate in the favor of another. The availability of males seems to be the primary factor that determines the patterns in their mating system. The duration of these bonds seems to be variable, with it depending from female to female.

Spotted Sandpiper Diet

Spotted Sandpipers are insectivores that mostly eat small invertebrates like midges, mayflies, flies and their aquatic larvae, grasshoppers, beetles, worms, snails, and small crustaceans. They also eat small fish and may occasionally scavenge dead fish as well. Spotted Sandpipers are active foragers in addition to probing into sand or mud with their
bills like most Sandpipers, they also lunge at moving prey, pick insects off plants, or snap at flying prey.

Spotted Sandpiper Habitat

These Sandpipers are the most widespread Sandpipers in North America, breeding alongside nearly any freshwater or brackish wetland. They live by rivers and streams, along with parts by the seacoast. They also live by wetlands that are present in drier, more arid regions, ranging all the way to the mountainous regions of the Rocky Mountains. Their elevational range is also quite remarkable, with Spotted Sandpipers wintering anywhere from sea level to 14,000 feet above the sea. Although breeding territories strongly require moister areas by the shoreline, they are generally in semi-open areas where there is an abundant amount of dense vegetation to hide the nests from the elements and predators. Their wintering locations are diverse, ranging from beaches, mangroves, rainforests, and cloud forests.

Range and Migration

The breeding range of these widespread birds spans through Canada and the United States, ranging from Alaska to California on the western side. Migration seasons take them towards the southern regions of the United States, through Mexico, to the Caribbean and the central regions of South America south of Brazil. Rare vagrants in western Europe have also been found. Despite their long migrations, the birds do not migrate in flocks and are generally by themselves or in pairs.

Spotted Sandpiper Lifecycle

Spotted Sandpipers may have anywhere from 1 to 5 broods every breeding season. Each season begins with 3–5 eggs that are off-white, light pink, or pale green in color. Although males generally incubate the eggs, females in monogamous pairs may take turns with them. The incubation period lasts for 20–24 days, after which the chicks emerge coordinated and covered in down. They leave the nest soon after hatching and are able to feed themselves, although the males remain to brood and protect them. The age at which they learn to fly is at 17–25 days, after which they are independent.


Nest sites are selected by either the male or the female, with the nest generally always located near the edge of a waterbody within 100 yards of the shore. The nest is placed under a broad-leafed plant for shade, sometimes hidden within thick vegetation. Plants that they opt for include raspberries or nettles. They may; however, adapt to urban settings and settle in gravel pits, farm ponds, or even wetlands created from mining activities. Sometimes they nest near or within Common Tern colonies as well.

Nest building is a vital part of courtship, cementing pair bonding. The pair may start building several nests during this period, but those are left and ultimately never finished. The nest that would be used is built after the pair has formed and is usually a 2–3 inch depression scraped out of the soil. The depression is then lined with dead grass or woody materials. Although females generally begin building it, it is often finished by the male.

Anatomy of a Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpipers are medium-size shorebirds that have a body length of 7.1–7.9 inches and an approximate weight of 1.2–1.8 ounces. Their bill is slightly shorter than their head, and their body seems to taper down to their tail. Spotted Sandpiper rounded breast makes it seem like they are leaning forward constantly. Their wings are relatively medium-size to long with a wingspan of 14.6–15.8 inches.

Final Thoughts

Although these birds are the most common Sandpipers in North America, their populations have continued to decline by an estimated 1.5% every year since the late 1960s. However, these birds are not on any Birds Watch List and are concerned to be a species of least concern. Common factors that negatively impact them are the loss of their native wetland habitats, or from polluted water from pesticides, herbicides, and other pollutants. This harms their ability to forage and raise their young.

Spotted Sandpipers are as enigmatic as they are ferocious. The idiosyncrasies of their behaviors have captured the attention of observers for centuries, as they are so much more receptive to their environments compared to other birds. Not only are they an anomaly among Sandpipers, but they also have long confused scientists about which species they resemble the most. The answer to that is simple, they are unique. Every aspect of them is unique, and those who are lucky enough to see one in real life can vouch for that.


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At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.

Bird Watching Binoculars for IdentifyingSpotted Sandpipers

The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Spotted Sandpipers are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Spotted Sandpiper Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Spotted Sandpiper. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.

Bird Feeders ForSpotted Sandpipers

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Bird HousesForSpotted Sandpipers

There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.

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