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Spotted Sandpiper

Actitis macularius ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: SCOLOPACIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The dapper Spotted Sandpiper makes a great ambassador for the notoriously difficult-to-identify shorebirds. They occur all across North America, they are distinctive in both looks and actions, and they're handsome. They also have intriguing social lives in which females take the lead and males raise the young. With their richly spotted breeding plumage, teetering gait, stuttering wingbeats, and showy courtship dances, this bird is among the most notable and memorable shorebirds in North America.

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Keys to identification Help

Shorebirds
Shorebirds
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Spotted Sandpiper is a medium-sized shorebird with a bill slightly shorter than its head and a body that tapers to a longish tail. They have a rounded breast and usually appear as though they are leaning forward.

  • Color Pattern

    In breeding season Spotted Sandpipers have bold dark spots on their bright white breast and an orange bill. The back is dark brown. In winter, a Spotted Sandpiper's breast is not spotted; it's plain white, while the back is grayish brown and the bill is pale yellow. In flight, Spotted Sandpipers have a thin white stripe along the wing.

  • Behavior

    Spotted Sandpipers are often solitary and walk with a distinctive teeter, bobbing their tails up and down constantly. When foraging they walk quickly, crouching low, occasionally darting toward prey, all the while bobbing the tail. In flight, Spotted Sandpipers have quick, snappy wingbeats interspersed with glides, keeping their wings below horizontal. Listen for a few high whistled notes as they take off from the shoreline.

  • Habitat

    Look for Spotted Sandpipers nearly anywhere near water—along streambanks, rivers, ponds, lakes, and beaches, particularly on rocky shores. This species is one of the most widespread breeding shorebirds in the United States and is commonly seen near freshwater, even in otherwise arid or forested regions.

Range Map Help

Spotted Sandpiper Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult breeding

    Spotted Sandpiper

    Adult breeding
    • Short-necked and long-tailed
    • Often in horizontal posture
    • Brown above and white below with extensive dark spotting
    • Orange bill and thin white stripe above eye
    • © Raymond Lee, Elk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada, June 2011
  • Adult breeding

    Spotted Sandpiper

    Adult breeding
    • Short-necked and long-tailed
    • Pot-bellied appearance
    • Dull brown above, white below with bold, dark spotting
    • White stripe above eye
    • © Jessie H. Barry, Ithaca, New York, July 2008
  • Adult nonbreeding

    Spotted Sandpiper

    Adult nonbreeding
    • Short neck and long tail
    • Sits horizontally with pot-bellied appearance
    • Dull brown above, white below
    • Bold white eye ring
    • © Stephen Ramirez, Progreso, Texas, January 2011
  • Adult nonbreeding

    Spotted Sandpiper

    Adult nonbreeding
    • Pudgy appearance with short neck and pot belly
    • Dull brown above, white below
    • Bold white eye ring
    • Pinkish gray bill
    • © Joan Gellatly, Safety Harbor, Florida, December 2008
  • Adult breeding in flight

    Spotted Sandpiper

    Adult breeding in flight
    • Long tail and broad, stubby wings
    • Thin white stripe on wings
    • Brown above with faint dark speckling
    • White stripe above eye
    • © Brian L. Sullivan
  • Juvenile

    Spotted Sandpiper

    Juvenile
    • Chubby with short neck and long tail
    • Juvenile shows dark scaling and barring on brown upperparts
    • Grayish brown on sides of neck
    • White eye ring
    • © Bill Benish, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens, New York, July 2009
  • Juvenile

    Spotted Sandpiper

    Juvenile
    • Chubby, with short neck and long tail
    • Dull brown above and snowy white below
    • Perches horizontally while bobbing tail up and down
    • Juvenile show dark scaling and scalloping on back
    • © Tim Lenz, Ithaca, New York, October 2010
  • Adult nonbreeding

    Spotted Sandpiper

    Adult nonbreeding
    • Perches horizontally
    • Plain brown above, white below
    • White eye ring
    • Thin white stripe above eye
    • © Gary Tyson, Key West, Florida, March 2011
  • Adult breeding

    Spotted Sandpiper

    Adult breeding
    • Walks in horizontal posture while bobbing tail
    • Short neck
    • Bold dark spotting on white underparts
    • Orange bill with black tip
    • © Reid Barclay, Oakridge, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, July 2009

Similar Species

  • Juvenile

    Solitary Sandpiper

    Juvenile
    • Similar to Spotted Sandpiper but more slender with smaller head
    • Dense white speckling on back
    • Eye ring bolder than on Spotted Sandpiper, with no stripe above eye
    • Greenish yellow legs longer than Spotted Sandpiper
    • © Robin Arnold, Ohio, October 2010
  • Adult nonbreeding

    Wandering Tattler

    Adult nonbreeding
    • Similar to Spotted Sandpiper but much larger
    • Long wings and long, stout bill
    • Cold, steel gray above and on breast
    • Bright yellow legs
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Arcata, California, April 2008
  • Adult breeding

    Lesser Yellowlegs

    Adult breeding
    • More slender than Spotted Sandpiper with much longer legs
    • Thin, needle-like bill
    • Crown and back speckled gray and white
    • Bright yellow legs
    • © Matt Bango, Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook, New Jersey, April 2010

Similar Species

Solitary Sandpipers have a longer neck and legs than Spotted Sandpipers. They lack well-defined spots on the breast and usually have a conspicuous white eyering. Solitary Sandpipers have a grayer wash across the breast, whereas Spotted Sandpipers have brown-smudged sides. Solitary Sandpipers do teeter a bit, but they jerk their body up and down a few times, unlike the continual bobbing of a Spotted Sandpiper. In flight, Solitary Sandpipers don't flutter and their wings lack a white stripe. Lesser Yellowlegs are larger with longer, bright-yellow legs; they don't bob their tails. Least Sandpipers always have an intricately patterned brown back. They're smaller with shorter legs than Spotted Sandpipers; they run around like mice, and do not bob their tails. In summer, Spotted Sandpipers are by far the most likely of any of these species to be seen over most of the continent.

Find This Bird

Though you may think of the beach as the best place to see a sandpiper, look for Spotted Sandpipers alone or in pairs along the shores of lakes, rivers, and streams. Once in flight, watch for their stuttering wingbeats, or look for them teetering along rocky banks or logs.