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Least Sandpiper

Calidris minutilla ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: SCOLOPACIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Least Sandpipers are the smallest of the small sandpipers known as “peeps”—not much bigger than a sparrow. They have distinctive yellow-green legs and a high-pitched creep call. Look for them on edges of mudflats or marshes, where they walk with a hunched posture and probe for little crustaceans, insects, and other invertebrates. This common but declining shorebird migrates thousands of miles between its arctic breeding grounds and wintering grounds as far south as Chile and Brazil.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.1–5.9 in
13–15 cm
Wingspan
10.6–11 in
27–28 cm
Weight
0.7–1.1 oz
19–30 g
Other Names
  • Bécasseau minuscule (French)
  • Correlimos menudo, Minutilla blanca, Playero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Least Sandpiper is the smallest shorebird in the world, weighing in at about 1 ounce and measuring 5-6 inches long. Males are slightly smaller than females.
  • Eastern populations probably fly nonstop over the ocean from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and New England to wintering grounds in northeastern South America, a distance of about 1,800 to 2,500 miles.
  • Researchers studying Least Sandpipers discovered a new feeding mechanism. While probing damp mud with their bills, the sandpipers use the surface tension of the water to transport prey quickly from their bill tips to their mouths.
  • Least Sandpipers hunt for food on slightly drier, higher ground compared to other small sandpipers. Although numerous worldwide, they usually flock in smaller numbers—dozens rather than hundreds or thousands—than some other shorebirds.
  • The oldest Least Sandpiper on record was 15 years old when it was captured and released by a Nova Scotia researcher in 1985.

Habitat


Marsh

Least Sandpipers breed in tundra and boreal forests across the extreme northern regions of North America. They nest in coastal wetlands, bogs, sedge meadows, and tussock heaths. At the southern reaches of their breeding range, in Nova Scotia and British Columbia, they also nest in sand dunes. During migration they stop on coastal mudflats, rocky shorelines, and inland habitats including wet meadows, flooded fields, and muddy edges of lakes, ponds, and ditches. They winter from the southern United States through the northern half of South America in lagoons, mangrove forests, wet ditches, swamps, wet fields, mudflats, saltmarshes, tidal sloughs, and the edges of lakes, ponds, and rivers.

Food


Insects

Least Sandpipers eat mostly insects and other invertebrates. They forage on moist mud toward the edges of broad mudflats, sparse cobble beaches, or openings in marsh vegetation. During the breeding season they also forage in drier upland areas such as tundra. They eat small invertebrates such as amphipods, isopods, gastropods, horseshoe crab eggs, water fleas, midges and flies, beetles, and dragonflies. They peck at prey on the surface and probe damp mud for buried prey, using the surface tension of the water to transport the item quickly from their bill tips to their mouths. Females have longer bills than males and feed on larger items buried deeper in the mud. They supplement their diet of invertebrates with seeds of marsh grasses, including smartweed and panic grass.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.1–1.2 in
2.8–3 cm
Egg Width
0.8–0.9 in
2.1–2.2 cm
Incubation Period
19–23 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Pale yellowish-brown, with brown spots or blotches.
Condition at Hatching
Active and covered with down.
Nest Description

The male starts the nest by pressing his body into the vegetation on the ground and making a scrape. The female finishes smoothing out the hollow and adds a sparse lining of dead vegetation, creating a nest cup about 2 inches across and 1.5-2 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Ground

Least Sandpipers nest in tufts of short marsh grass on damp ground. In very wet areas they use slightly drier mossy hummocks. The male establishes the nesting area and makes several scrapes in the ground, and the female chooses one for nesting.

Behavior


Probing

Least Sandpipers flock with other shorebirds during fall migration and winter, including Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, and Dunlin. They roost in marsh vegetation near feeding areas, usually scattered in small groups. Early in the breeding season, males display for females by calling noisily and making a fast circular flight with bursts of wingbeats and glides, ending with a diving descent to the ground. Males defend their display areas against other males by fighting: they may land on each other’s backs, spar with their feet, and chase each other. Once paired up for the breeding season, they become less aggressive toward other males. Males and females share incubation, with females incubating in the evening and males taking a longer shift that lasts the rest of the day. The pair is monogamous and stays together until the female abandons the brood. The chicks feed themselves, but the male often stays with them until they fledge, keeping predators at bay. Nest predators include Common Ravens, crows, gulls, Sandhill Cranes, jaegers, Short-eared Owls, arctic foxes, and red foxes.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Least Sandpipers have a wide range and are numerous, but their populations are declining. Through the early twentieth century Least Sandpipers were among the many small sandpipers shot by commercial hunters on the Atlantic coast, but their numbers recovered after the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Today, one of their biggest conservation concerns is wetland degradation and destruction. Populations in western and central Canada are thought to be stable, but those in eastern North America are declining. Between 1974 and 1991, the fall migration count in eastern Canada fell by 3 percent per year. The Maritime Provinces population dropped by 15.8 percent annually from 1974–1998. Because their breeding range is broad and remote, it’s likely the declines are happening at other points in their life cycle, such as from losses of wetland habitat on their migration routes and wintering grounds. Since Least Sandpipers are widespread and hard to distinguish from other small sandpipers during surveys, they have not been targeted for specific management by groups such as the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, but they will likely benefit from general protection of shorebird habitat.

Credits

Range Map Help

Least Sandpiper Range Map
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Migration

Long-distance migrant. Least Sandpipers migrate in a broad swath across North America. Eastern populations probably fly 1,800-2,500 miles nonstop over the ocean to South America. Western populations migrate through interior North America or down the Pacific coast.

Find This Bird

Least Sandpipers breed in the tundra of the far north, so most people see them during migration (April to May and July to October) or winter. Look for them on mudflats or protected beaches. They are easiest to find on the coasts, but are also plentiful as migrants on inland bodies of water. Once you find suitable habitat of wet mud or sand, scan the edges of the water and look for very small sandpipers, warm brown above and white below with a short, thin, slightly decurved bill. If you can see yellowish legs you’ll be able to narrow down this bird quickly; just keep in mind that their legs sometimes look dark from mud stains. Shorebird identification can be complicated, so it’s important to look closely and carefully.

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All About Birds blog, These 8 Unexpected Migration Routes Give You Reason to Go Birding in Summer, July 16, 2014.

All About Birds blog, First-Ever World Shorebirds Day Highlights Need for Conservation, September 5, 2014.