Help With Sandpiper Identification

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picture of a least sandpiper

Most people know them simply as beach birds. Formally they go by the name Sandpipers (Calidris), and they account for nineteen of the Scolopacidae sixty-six species. As the family’s largest North American genera, it’s no wonder these beach birds remain so memorable.

Known for their small size, the sandpipers accompany humans along the continent’s salt and fresh water shorelines. The five species presented here, fairly represent the genera and can help answer basic sandpiper identification questions.

The Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), top picture, ranks as North America’s smallest shorebird. During migration they seek out food in freshwater mudflats, and often congregate in large flocks.

Dull yellow legs and a bill that looks long compared to the short body tend to characterize the species.

pectoral sandpiper

Moving up the size scale a bit, Pectoral Sandpipers (Calidris melanotos) rank among the long distance shorebird champions, typically breeding in northern latitudes like Canada and Alaska. Most migrate to South America for the winter.

Flying such a long distance means they make inland and coastal appearances across the continent during their migrations.

Pectorals grow a bit larger than the smaller sandpipers. The orange-reddish coloring at the base of the bill provides a good field identification clue. Their diet consists mostly of insects and other aquatic organisms they find in the mudflats.

picture of a sanderling

Sanderlings (Calidris alba) commonly get descried as the shorebird that runs up and down the beach with the tide while they search for food. Like other smaller sandpipers, they breed in northern freshwater locations as far north as the Arctic circle. Unlike other sandpipers, they chart an expanded southern migrate route, along coastal beach areas world wide.

Medium sized, with black legs, their top feathers range from chestnut to gray, depending on the season. The Sanderling in picture four displays its non-breeding plumage. They often congregate in groups.

western sandpiper picture

Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) often congregate in large numbers across many North American locations. Contrary to the name, their range extends as far east as the coastal areas of the South Atlantic.

Identification can be a fairly straightforward task that begins by documenting a pair of black legs on a small sandpiper.

picture of a surfbird

The large number of shorebird species also allows for additional ‘one of a family’ or genera species. In the sandpiper family, for example, Surfbirds (Aphriza virgata), account for the entire North American Aphriza genus. They inhabit the furthermost rocks and ledges of western shorelines and feed on insects and spiders that hide among rock crevices, as well as consuming small amounts of seeds and marine organisms.