Grays Harbor Birds — Spotted Sandpiper


This shorebird is a fairly easy one to spot (pun intended), as it has a distinguishing spotted belly in breeding plumage and although much plainer in the non-breeding months, it still has an easily-noticed teetering motion as it moves about.

This is the most widespread sandpiper in North America and can be found from sea level to sub-alpine lakes, from northern forest edge to open fields, marshes, and rocky shores. They can swim, dive, and even perch on wires. The female is first to the breeding grounds, defends the territory from other females, mates with more than one male and lays more than one clutch of eggs, yet the male does the parenting.

The Spotted Sandpiper is a real winner in the game of life, and we are fortunate to have it in our neighborhood.

Size: 7 1/2 inches tall, with a wingspan of 15 inches, and weighing approximately 1 1/2 ounces.

General Description: During breeding season, May through September, Spotted Sandpipers have a white breast with dark spots and a brown back with dark spots. Their bills are yellowish-orange with a black tip and about the same length as their head from front to back. Their legs are yellowish-orange during breeding then grayish-green the rest of the year. In flight, they have white underwings and dark brown upperwings with a white stripe that doesn’t reach the ends.

Habitat: Spotted Sandpipers can be found near water; ponds, streams, marshes, lakes, and rivers all attract this bird to feed and breed. They are found near fresh water during breeding, but often winter near salt water.

Behavior: This bird is usually found bobbing and teetering along the edge of water as it hunts for food. It looks as though it is leaning forward as it moves, maintaining a more horizontal profile, giving it the look of a bird in a hurry. While most shorebirds have a sewing machine, up and down, feeding method the Spotted Sandpiper feeds off the surface of the ground or water, and often jabs horizontally into vegetation, or even snatches insects out of the air. Its flight is described as “fluttery”, flying low across the water with shallow, stiff wing beats and bursts of flapping and gliding.

Diet: Spotted Sandpipers eat a large variety of foods, including aquatic insects, worms, crustaceans, mollusks, carrion, and small fish.

Nesting: Females are larger than males; they pick the nesting territory and defend it, display to attract a male and mate with him. She lays four eggs then leaves him to attract and mate with another male and repeats the process up to four times. The males do all the parenting, although the female may incubate the last clutch by herself. The nest is on a raised site on the ground, partially hidden by rocks or a log, or by grass. It is made of moss, dried grass, and feathers, and lined with feathers and fine grasses. The eggs are incubated for 19 to 22 days, and the young leave the nest soon after hatching. The males tend the young for four weeks, though the chicks find their own food. They can fly at 15 days but are not really ready for strong flight until 18 days old.

Migration Status: Some populations of Spotted Sandpipers migrate but only short distances to the coast or to the southern states. There are some who migrate as far south as South America, with the adults leaving in late July or August, and the juveniles leaving in September or October and returning in May.

Conservation Status: Though some areas of the country have experienced a significant decline in the population of Spotted Sandpipers due to loss of habitat and the use of pesticides, the population in Washington state has increased significantly since 1966.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: During the breeding period of May through September, this bird can be found across the county. It prefers to winter on the coast in the marshes, along the edges of the sewage treatment ponds, along streams and rivers, and agricultural ponds. I most often see them along the Hoquiam River behind the Hoquiam Public Market, or out on the Oyehut Wildlife Area in Ocean Shores. Look for the bird on the rocks or mud, bobbing and teetering along.