Stilt Sandpiper

A bird that is predominantly of the low arctic and the subarctic regions of North America, the Stilt Sandpiper is impressive in the long migrations they undertake to reach their wintering grounds in central South America. They are graceful shorebirds that have a remarkable breeding plumage, along with their long legs and bills that curve ever so slightly. Their bright yellow legs especially catch the attention of observers, whether they are walking or simply standing in place.

About Stilt Sandpipers

Perhaps, due to these long legs, they avoid tidal mudflats like other Sandpipers. They prefer wading into pools or lagoons to a belly-deep level where they use their bills in a mechanical way to probe for invertebrates. They hold a remarkable resemblance to Yellowlegs and Dowitchers, due to which they were not correctly identified until very recently. These birds, however, continue to hold similarities that liken them to the rest of the Sandpipers found in
North America.

Having held the reputation of being dubious for long, these birds are now slowly starting to be better understood. As more data about them comes to light, scientists have more to work with in piecing together different aspects of their lives to paint a clearer picture. Today, we will be talking about Stilt Sandpipers.

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


Stilt Sandpiper Color Pattern

These Sandpipers have distinctly different breeding and non-breeding plumages. Their plumage during migration and winter is characterized by a brownish-gray back, a gray throat and chest, and whitish underparts. They have blackish-green to olive green legs, white eyebrow-like stripes on their head, and white and gray tail feathers. Their breeding plumage is distinguished by their heavily barred underparts and the chestnut cheek-patch on their faces. Although both sexes look similar to each other, males have more distinct bars as compared to females. Everything from the chestnut feathers to the barred underparts is brighter and more pronounced in males. Juveniles look similar to the nonbreeding plumages of adults but have uniformly fresh and crisp-edged upper parts.

Description and Identification

These birds are best found during their spring and fall migrations. Their affinity for freshwater means that it may be easier to find them in the central parts of North America, in places such as Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas, and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, than on the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf coasts. To find this species, look for places where both Dowitchers and Yellowlegs congregate. Then look for the “in-between” looking Stilt Sandpiper, with its distinctively if subtly decurved bill.

Stilt Sandpiper Song

Adults give out a variety of calls during breeding seasons, with the songs of females generally less melodious than the males. The song generally consists of “xxree” sounds that resemble chattering as many as 14 times in a row. With an “ee-haw” note at the end which sounds like the braying of a donkey. The entire song can be best rendered as “xxree xxree xxree xxree ee haw ee haw”. This song is generally given in flight, or even just before landing.

Other calls include a harsh call “errit” that males sing that land after their territorial flight, presumably indicating that their territories have been occupied. They also have a low-intensity threat note that sounds like a rapid, gurgling, and descending trill, this call sounds like a “trrrrr”. Their high-intensity alarm note is a “kyow” that is generally let out when the chicks or the nest is disturbed. Oo-it is another sharp alarm call that is given after the eggs start pipping. The final call is a contact note that sounds like “weeet”, which parents give towards chicks that are hiding from intruders. A harsher and louder version of this call is often made by the adults to call the chicks to them.

The chicks make repeated “peep” sounds around 3–4 days before they hatch. With the alarm calls of even the youngest chicks differing from their regular contact notes. It is harsher and louder while being let out in a much higher frequency.

Stilt Sandpiper Size

Stilt Sandpipers are medium-sized shorebirds with a body length of 7.9–9.1 inches and an approximate weight of 1.8–2.5 ounces. They have a plump belly but seem to be slender due to their long legs, long and slim neck, and long but slightly decurved bill. Their long, narrow wings and feet extend well past the tip of their tail while they are in flight. These proportions make them similar in size to Dunlins but smaller than Lesser Yellowlegs.

Stilt Sandpiper Behavior

These birds generally walk or slowly wade through the water while feeding. Sometimes, they hop on a single leg, giving many the impression that they are crippled. They may also rest on a single leg, like flamingos. They are also strong fliers, taking fast and direct strides with their wings while maintaining tight flocks during migration season. Like most other shorebirds, these birds can swim exceptionally well. Although they don’t dive, new chicks are able to swim across pools and slow-flowing streams with ease.

These birds are not territorial but can display some aggression towards other Stilt Sandpipers on their breeding grounds. This is in response to the flocks that arrive early and live in small areas of unfrozen feeding habitat. They may also try to intimidate other birds by spreading their wings and making themselves seem larger. Although these birds are not territorial, they may get aggressive if neighboring birds come within 330 feet of their nests.

Overall, however, they seem to tolerate the presence of other birds in their vicinity. These birds are strictly monogamous. Courtship begins as soon as females appear on the nesting grounds, during which males pursue the females for a while singing and tilting from side to side. He also falls from the sky before resuming the aerial chase. Once they mate, they are devoted to their mates, spending most of their time together. Experienced birds often return to the same breeding grounds to pair up with the same mates from the previous years. Among these pairs that have nested together before, courtship displays are either reduced or completely omitted.

Stilt Sandpiper Diet

These birds mainly consume aquatic invertebrates like beetles, snails, and insect larvae. Common prey items include diving beetles, adult, and larval flies, craneflies, midges, mosquitoes, water bugs, water boatmen, small snails, and small frogs. They also commonly eat plant matter like seeds. Seeds of knotweed, river hemp, and many composite flowering plants are most frequently eaten. They forage by probing for prey with their bills in the mud, or on the surface.

Stilt Sandpiper Habitat

Stilt Sandpipers can be found nesting in moist meadows and on drier slopes in the low arctic and subarctic tundra. Within subarctic areas, they nest among dwarf birch, dwarf willow, Lapland rosebay, bog rosemary, bearberry, bog blueberry, and mountain cranberry. Occasional, they may be found in scattered, stunted black spruce trees as well. Regions in the low arctic also offer them similar habitats, with dry tundra slopes and extensive dwarf willows granting them homes. During migration, they gather in most freshwater environments like marshes, ponds, and rainwater pools, but they may also stop and frequent flooded pastures, wet agricultural fields, and impoundments. They are hardly ever seen foraging on sandy beaches or in saltwater habitats like lagoons or mudflats, but they make the occasional appearance there. On their wintering grounds in South America, they use similar habitats but also include saltworks, rice fields, and brackish swamps.

Range and Migration

These birds are found breeding in the open arctic tundra of North America, braving the harsh conditions of the high arctic. They then undertake their incredibly long migrations through eastern Canada, United States, and Mexico, before moving on through Central America and the Panama Canal to reach their wintering grounds in northern and central South America. They are sometimes spotted as vagrants in western Europe, Japan, and northern Australia
as well.

Stilt Sandpiper Lifecycle

The number of broods these sandpipers have in one season is unknown, but it is presumed to be one. A brood typically has 4 pale creams to olive-green eggs, with both parents taking turns incubating the eggs for 19–21 days. Females generally incubate at night, while males incubate during the day. The eggs hatch and the chicks emerge covered in down and extremely active, leaving the nest soon after hatching and being capable of finding their own food. While both parents initially remain to tend to them, females leave in less than a week. Males stick around for a little longer and depart after around 2 weeks. The young learn how to fly after about 17–18 days, after which they are independent and ready to leave their native breeding grounds.


The male makes several scrapes on the ground, from which the females decide the most suitable nest site. The ideal site is generally a natural depression or a flat spot near dwarf birches or willows and is sometimes near water. The nest itself is a simple depression that is lined with softer plant material like willow and birch leaves, grasses, sedges, cotton grass, horsetail, mosses, and lichens. The resulting nests are about 4.1 inches across and 1.2 inches tall.

Anatomy of a Stilt Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpipers are medium-sized shorebirds with a body length of 7.9–9.1 inches and an approximate weight of 1.8–2.5 ounces. They have a plump belly but seem to be slender due to their long legs, long and slim neck, and long but slightly decurved bill. Their long, narrow wings and feet extend well past the tip of their tail while they are in flight. These proportions make them similar in size to Dunlins but smaller than Lesser Yellowlegs.

Final Thoughts

The cumulative numbers of these birds are not well studied. Stilt Sandpiper populations may be declining, but the extent of the decline is not known. Populations carefully studied from the 1960s to the present in northern Canada have apparently suffered from the proliferation of nesting Snow Geese, which degrade the species’ nesting habitat. Other factors that harm them are petroleum and gas development that occurs in breeding areas, along with the development of wetlands in their wintering areas. Habitat loss might account for a disproportionately harmful effect to their populations, as climate change in the arctic and subarctic regions intensifies. Moreover, these birds are still hunted in the Caribbean and South America.

Stilt Sandpipers are remarkable in their own way. They offer curious insights that were not considered by scientists before, such as longest-billed female Sandpipers and shortest-billed males being the first to pair up during the breeding seasons. Why such behavior occurs is not fully understood yet, but it is interesting, nevertheless. They hold a candle to the fact that sometimes, the smallest and most unassuming birds can offer the greatest surprises.


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Bird HousesForStilt Sandpipers

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