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Spotted Sandpiper Life History


ShorelinesSpotted Sandpipers are the most widespread sandpiper in North America, and they are common near most kinds of freshwater, including rivers and streams, as well as near the sea coast. Their range includes water bodies in otherwise arid parts of the continent, and it extends into the mountains, where they may occur upwards of 14,000 feet above sea level. Breeding territories generally need to have a shoreline, a semiopen area where the nest will be, and patches of dense vegetation for sheltering the chicks. Spotted Sandpipers spend the winter along the coasts of North America or on beaches, mangroves, rainforest, and cloud forest up to 6,000 feet elevation in Central and South America.Back to top


Small AnimalsSpotted Sandpipers eat mostly small invertebrates such as midges, mayflies, flies (particularly their aquatic larvae), grasshoppers, beetles, worms, snails, and small crustaceans. They also eat small fish and may pick at 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 airborne prey. Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundEither the male or the female may choose a nest location. Nests are always located near the edge of a body of water, usually within about 100 yards of the shore. The nest is typically placed under the shade of a broad-leafed plant. If predators are numerous, the nest is more likely to be under thicker vegetation such as raspberries or nettles. They are not averse to gravel pits, farm ponds, or even wetlands created by mining operations. They will often nest near or within Common Tern colonies when this species is present.

Nest Description

Nest building is an important part of courtship. A pair may begin several nests during the process, but those are rarely finished. The actual nest, built after the pair has formed and courtship is over, is a 2–3 inch depression scraped out in the soil and lined with dead grass and woody material. Often it is begun by the female and finished by the male.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-5 eggs
Number of Broods:1-5 broods
Egg Length:1.1-1.4 in (2.9-3.5 cm)
Egg Width:0.9-1.0 in (2.2-2.6 cm)
Incubation Period:19-22 days
Egg Description:Off-white, pinkish, or pale green speckled with brown.
Condition at Hatching:Downy, coordinated, eyes open, and quickly able to begin eating and walking.
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ProbingSpotted Sandpipers are active foragers along streambanks and lake edges, walking in meandering paths and suddenly darting at prey—almost constantly bobbing their tail end in a smooth motion. Their flight style is equally distinctive: low over the water with stuttering bursts of fast wingbeats interspersed with very brief glides. Spotted Sandpipers were one of the first bird species described in which the roles of the males and females are reversed. Males are usually smaller, less aggressive and tend the nest and young. Meanwhile, the larger females fight for territories and may be polyandrous, meaning they mate with more than one male. Males that mate with the same female set up smaller territories within her territory and defend them against each other. Males tend to have more of the pituitary hormone prolactin than females. Prolactin promotes parental care, which may explain how the role reversal develops each season. The females perform courtship behavior, usually an elaborate swooping flight with the wings held open while the bird gives its weet-weet song. She may also give a strutting courtship display from the ground. Females that are looking for mates over a wide area may do this up and down considerable lengths of shoreline. Interested males remain on the territory while uninterested males are chased away. Back to top


Low Concern

Spotted Sandpiper is the most widespread breeding sandpiper in North America, but populations declined by almost 1.5% per year between 1966 and 2019, resulting in a cumulative decline of approximately 54%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population to be 660,000 and rates the species 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. On a local scale, development and loss of their wetland habitat or compromised water quality from pesticides, herbicides, or other runoff can harm these sandpipers' ability to feed and raise young.

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Andres, B. A., P. A. Smith, R. I. G. Morrison, C. L. Gratto-Trevor, S. C. Brown, and C. A. Friis (2012). Population estimates of North American shorebirds, 2012. Wader Study Group Bulletin 119:178–194.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Reed, J. Michael, Lewis W. Oring and Elizabeth M. Gray. (2013). Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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