SANDPIPERS Scolopacidae
Sandpipers are found on shores and in wetlands around the globe, breeding on the Arctic tundra to more temperate climes. This adult Spotted Sandpiper (left) typifies the latter group: it breeds along river and lake shores across temperate North America.

Sandpipers are a highly diverse family which include the ground-dwelling snipes and woodcocks to the highly pelagic Red Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius. Biochemically they seem to have arisen from a single ancestor but underwent an explosive evolution in the early Tertiary after a great wave of extinctions in the late Cretaceous period (Piersma 1996). Today, the wide variety of sandpipers, and the close relationships of many, present numerous identification challenges. The identification literature alone is impressive. Further, the beautiful patterns and colors on juvenal-plumaged birds are among the most striking in the world, while the striking breeding plumage feathers serve to camouflage adults on their breeding grounds on the arctic tundra. Many of these arctic breeders spend the non-breeding period well south of the Equator, brightening the lives of birders in the austral summer (our winter). 

Many sandpipers are highly migratory with distinctive breeding (=alternate) and winter (=basic) plumages, and most have a characteristic juvenal plumage, such as that exhibited by a juv. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (right). Because many are long distance migrants, vagrants occur widely and the search for these vagrants is the highlight of early autumn for many American and European observers. In California, for example, the discovery of a Terek Sandpiper (below left) a first State record that was successfully 'chased' by hundreds of observers during its nearly four-week stay made the fall of 1988 very memorable. A Bristle-thighed Curlew at Crescent City (below right; another California first) had the same effect on spring migration in 1998.
Sometimes as I walk along a beach and watch the skittering sandpipers chasing the waves, I think about just how far each individual bird has traveled to reach the spot that it and I share the same sand. I suppose that is a bit too metaphysical for some birders but it was, for example, essentially the premise of Last of the Curlews, the personalized and fictional story of the last Eskimo Curlew on earth (Bodsworth 1954).

In this light, I rather like the photo above. It shows an adult Little Curlew the closest relative to Eskimo Curlew left on earth standing on a beach and apparently contemplating its next long flight over the crashing surf and endless Pacific Ocean to its final destination. Little Curlew has one of the longest migration routes from northeast Siberia to Australasia and although it is not on the edge of extinction, its numbers are rather small (e.g., ~200,000; Piersma 1996). In truth, this photo documents one of the very few Little Curlews to reach North America, a vagrant bird that appeared in California during the autumns of 1984, 1988, 1993 (all of those years it visited the Santa Maria R. mouth in n. Santa Barbara Co.) and finally in fall 1994 on Carmel State Beach in my home county (where this photo was taken).

Among the high Arctic breeders are 19 species of Calidris and the unique Spoon-billed Sandpiper (above left; photo by Ed Greaves). It is among the world's rarest sandpipers; Birdlife International (2000) estimated the world population could be as few as 2500 birds and declining. To observe it as a vagrant and Ed Greaves' photo is from Attu Is. in the United States is an absolute delight. Vagrancy in sandpipers makes them extremely popular among birders. To see an alternate-plumaged Red-necked Stint (above right; photo by John Sorensen) in my home county (Monterey) in California was an exceptional experience.
Among the challenges of shorebirding is to learn the three plumages of each migratory species while keeping in mind the distances and directions they travel. Consider the Little Stint (next three photos), a widespread breeder on Arctic tundra in Eurasia. Adults breed and migrate in a colorful alternate (=breeding) plumage (below, upper left), youngsters migrate during their first autumn flight south in patterned juvenal plumage (below, lower left), and then both molt into a plain basic (=winter) plumage when they reach their wintering grounds.
In these three examples we also see the span of migration:
  • adult on arctic tundra; this time as a vagrant at Pt. Barrow, Alaska [photo by Peter J. Myers; left]
  • juvenal migrating in September, this time as a vagrant in Monterey County, California [lower left], and
  • a wintering bird stretches it wing on the shore of Lake Nakuru, Kenya [below]

Basic plumage contains shades of gray or brown, essentially unmarked, against mostly white underparts. But both alternate and juvenal plumages can be quite colorful, especially in Calidris sandpipers, and separating breeding-plumaged adults from youngsters in juvenal plumage in early fall migration (particularly July-Sep) can be difficult. Yet this is the time when wader-watching is at its peak, and the chance of finding vagrants is the highest. The set of photos below compare these age classes.

Above is a Least Sandpiper in juvenal plumage. That plumage is colorful with many of the upperpart feathers showing multiple colors. Many are black-centered with rusty, white, or orange edges. Adult feathers can be equally colorful, so the key is to locate the upperwing coverts, highlighted in yellow in the small photo to the right. An enlargement of that area shows tracks of feathers that are just as patterned and colorful as the rest of the upperparts. The two yellow arrows point to two of the feathers in the greater coverts: each is blackish-centered with orange edges and white tips. The feathers are fresh and the colors well demarcated. The row of feathers just above these (median coverts) is similar and so are the rows of small lesser coverts that can be seen. However, in the upper left of the close-up shot are some large scapular feathers that overlap and cover most of the lesser coverts, and in the large photo of the whole bird, you can see many scapular and back feathers dominating the upperparts. It is critical to locate the actual greater and median coverts to be able to age this individual as a hatch-year bird in juvenal plumage.

Below in a Dunlin in full alternate plumage. That plumage is also very colorful with the upperpart feathers showing multiple colors. Some feathers look red-centered with black subterminal bands and white tips. [Incidentally, this Dunlin is of the race pacificus, which has the reddest upperparts of any of the races and used to be called "Red-backed Sandpiper."] In Dunlin, the underparts are also colorful (large black belly patch) in adults, making ageing easier, but not all Calidris have colorful underparts in alternate plumage. Rather, locate the upperwing coverts: again they are highlighted in yellow on the small photo to the right. In the enlargement below, the lefthand yellow arrow points to the row of median coverts and the righthand two arrows point to the great coverts. Note that each feather in the median and greater coverts is NOT colorful it is plain gray with a little duskiness along the shaft, and each feather is very worn. This is because adults in alternate plumage retain the upperwings coverts from basic (=winter) plumage instead of molting them in the spring. So in spring, summer, and during fall migration, adults in a colorful alternate plumage have very dull, worn, and gray upperwing coverts. If you can locate and identify the upperwing coverts, you can easily age shorebirds in fall migration. Beware, however, that under many circumstances the big scapular feathers entirely overlap the coverts, so it can take a little bit of time to see the underlying feathers (e.g., in the adult Little Stint from Barrow, above, the scaps entirely cover the upperwing coverts).

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The ability to correctly age sandpipers in migration is critical for identification between similar species, especially in the Calidris stints. Yet many of the various groups of sandpipers are rather easily recognized. Some of these groups are shown in the gallery of four shots below. Can you recognize these groups?
There are six curlews in the genus Numenius, easily recognized by their long decurved bills (this includes Whimbrel N. phaeopus but excludes the likely extinct Eskimo Curlew N. borealis). In the matrix here, these are represented by North America's Long-billed Curlew (upper left). There are four species of godwit in the genus Limosa, also easily recognized by their long upturned bills, and represented here by America's Marbled Godwit (upper right). A slightly larger and more diverse group are the nine species of Tringa sandpipers, most of which have longish legs and medium-length, usually straight bills. One example is Marsh Sandpiper of Eurasia, some of which undertake a long migration from high latitudes to winter near the Equator in Africa (the one shown here, lower left, is in basic plumage in Kenya). There are also a number of genera with just one or two species ranging from tattlers to turnstones to dowitchers and including among them the monotypic genus Bartramia, Upland Sandpiper of central North America (lower right). It is long-legged and long-necked but short-billed, and undertakes a few long migration route to southern South America. On its breeding grounds it is often found standing atop fenceposts (as shown).
One of the larger groups within the sandpipers are the 20 snipes in three genera, 17 of which are within Gallinago.  Snipes are secretive waders, probing soft soils for invertebrates and often not noticed until flushed. The North American example is Wilson's Snipe (right), here shown unusually visible atop a fence post on its breeding grounds. Snipe inhabit all the large continents (North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa), as well as some islands (Madagascar, New Zealand), and many are difficult to separate from each other. Many are crepuscular, as are the 8 species of woodcock, genus Scolopax. Males have elaborate courtship flights at dusk or dawn but they are otherwise very secretive. One at high elevations on Luzon I., Philippines, was just recently discovered to science (Bukidnon Woodcock S. bukidnonensis). In North America, the American Woodcock is confined primarily to the eastern U.S., and only one has reached California (shown below).
All in all, sandpipers in this family, combined with plovers [Charadriidae], are often termed "shorebirds" or "waders" and are among the most popular set of birds for field observers. This is probably because of their lengthy migrations, producing strong seasonality in local occurrences, and the challenges in sorting out the various species and plumages, always keeping in mind the possibility of a rare vagrant. It has often been a joke among American birders traveling overseas that if they run into another birder, one can tell their nationality by their interests. If the observer is keen on raptors, he or she is apt to be Scandinavian. If the observer is searching out little brown jobs in the forest undergrowth, that's an American. But if the observer has eyes only for the waders that's a Brit. Of course this is a wild exaggeration, yet it does hold a grain of truth.....

The migrations and plumages of the Scolopacidae are, indeed, fascinating. This flock of basic-plumaged Gray-tailed Tattlers (below) were on Heron I., a tiny speck of an atoll island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. They had flown there all the way from their breeding grounds in northeast Asia, a distance of ~5000 miles. This feat alone rates among the wonders of the avian world.


Photos: The adult Spotted Sandpiper  Actitis macularius was digiscoped at the Carmel R. mouth, Monterey Co., California, on 15 Aug 2004. The juvenal Sharp-tailed Sandpiper  Calidris. acuminata was at my local patch, Moonglow Dairy, Monterey Co., California, on 22 Sep 1986. California's first  Terek Sandpiper  Xenus cinerea was on Carmel State Beach in Sep 1988; my photo was on 6 Sep 1988; the State's first Bristle-thighed Curlew Numenius tahitiensis was at Crescent City on 16 May 1998. The Little Curlew  Numenius minutus was on Carmel State Beach, Monterey Co., California, on  9 Sep 1994. Ed Greaves photographed the adult  Spoon-billed Sandpiper  Eurynorhynchus pygmeus on Attu I., w. Aleutians, Alaska, on 31 May 1986. The adult Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis was at Moss Landing, Monterey Co., California, on 14 July 2001. The adult Little Stint  C. minuta was photographed by Peter J. Myers at Barrow, Alaska, on 28 June 1976, where it represented a first North American record at the time; the juvenile was at Moonglow Dairy in Sep 1985 (many California birders chased this rarity, the 2nd State record at the time), and the basic plumaged Little Stint was at Lake Nakuru, Kenya, in Nov 1981. The juv. Least Sandpiper C. minutilla was at Carmel R. mouth, Monterey Co., California, on 15 Aug 2004. The adult Dunlin C. alpina was at Salinas R. mouth, Monterey Co., California, on 7 May 2004. The Long-billed Curlew  Numenius americanus was digiscoped at Moss Landing, California, on  2 Jan 2004. The Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa was on Elkhorn Slough, California, on 12 Sep 1993. The wintering Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis was at Lake Naivasha, Kenya, in Nov 1981. The adult Upland Sandpiper  Bartramia longicauda was at Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, in July 1988. The adult Wilson's Snipe Gallinago delicata was at Diamond Valley, Alpine Co., California, on 20 June 1999. California's first American Woodcock Scolopax minor was sitting in a flowerbox at Iron Mt. Pump Station, San Bernardino Co., on 9 Nov 1998. My photos were the only ones taken of this exceptional vagrant, and I was the last person to see it. It was especially meaningful to me since "American Woodcock" is my officially bestowed "bird name" from the "old days" back in the 1970s. I never thought I'd see one in my home state. Finally, the flock of Gray-tailed Tattler  Heteroscelus brevipes was on Heron I., Great Barrier Reef, Australia, in Sep 1983. All photos © Don Roberson, except those attributed to Ed Greaves, John Sorensen, and P.J. Myers who hold those copyrights; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic essay
Family book: rating 
Hayman, Peter, John Marchant & Tony Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World. Croom Helm, London.
This book covers all the Charadriformes not just shorebirds (waders to Brits) and so includes plovers, stilts, avocets, jaçanas, thick-knees, and pratincoles. It is not a "family book" per se, since its focus is on identification problems, but it does include sections on "habits" and migratory or seasonal "movements." Breeding biology and similar topics are not covered here. However, the quality of the identification text more than makes up for this "defect", and adding broader topics would have made for a very fat book. John Marchant gets special credit for the text an upgrade from his 1977 guide (with Prater & Vuorinen) which surveys the literature well and is based on much original research. The book does rely on Hayman's paintings for illustrations and while they are generally good, I think that photos are a necessary requirement when dealing with the subtleties of shorebird identification. So use this book as an introduction to these families and the identification problems that exist but rely on other texts for state-of-the-art details.
Other literature cited or recommended:
Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona & Cambridge, U.K., Lynx Edicions & Birdlife International.
        The major resources for facts about endangered and threatened birds around the globe.

Bodsworth, F. 1954. Last of the Curlews. Longman's, London.
        Fictional story of the life of the last Eskimo Curlew on earth; prescient for its time.

Chandler, R. J. 1989. North Atlantic Shorebirds: A Photographic Guide to the Waders of Western  Europe and Eastern North America. Facts on File, New York & Oxford.
       Fine color photos of a wide variety of species on both sides of the North Atlantic, but they tend to be printed too small for my taste. Good quality shots, though.

Jonsson, L, and Grant, P. J. 1984. Identification of stints and peeps. Brit. Birds 77: 293-315; and
Veit, R. R., and Jonsson, L. 1987. Field identification of smaller sandpipers within the genus Calidris. Amer. Birds 41: 212-236.
        These are the two classic papers which pushed the frontiers of shorebird i.d. well beyond prior information. Both use the paintings of Lars Jonsson to illustrate all three plumages (juvenal, basic, and alternate), and these papers were instrumental in getting observers to understand that the first step in wader i.d. is to ask: "what age is it?" Peter Grant's text is written from a British perspective (e.g., Little Stint is the common small stint) while Veit's text is written from an American perspective (e.g., Little Stint is a very rare vagrant). These are the foundation for all further research.

Patterson, Mike. 1998. The great curlew fallout of 1998. Field Notes 52: 150-155.
        The story, with many photos, of El Niño borne Bristle-thighed Curlews on the West Coast.

Paulson, D. 1993. Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest. Univ. of Washington Press, Seattle.
        Outstanding collection of photos and text highlighting identification problems, and of much use outside the Pacific Northwest. The vast majority of species in North America are covered in perhaps the best single American text on shorebirds identification.

Piersma, T. 1996. Family Charadriidae (Sandpipers - intro). Pp. 444-543 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
        An outstanding introduction to the taxonomy, biology, and ecology of this family.

Prater, A. J., J. H. Marchant, & J. Vuorinen. 1977. Guide to the Identification and Ageing of Holarctic Waders. BTO Guide 17. British Trust for Ornithology, Tring, England.
        A classic at its time but now replaced by Hayman, Marchant & Prater (1986), the "family book" reviewed above. Still useful for its collection of high quality black-and-white plates plus valuable biometrics.

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Page created 10 Feb 1999, revised 15-20 Aug 2004