E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Calidris himantopus (Bonapatre)
Stilt Sandpiper
Family: Scolopacidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman

© Mike Yip  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #11782)

Distribution of Calidris himantopus in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Breeding adult
This plumage is acquired in late winter or early spring (February-early May) and is held into the late summer or early fall (August-October), and virtually all individuals observed in spring in B.C. will be in this plumage. The upperparts (back, scapulars) are brownish-black with whitish speckling or mottling and a few rusty-buff markings. The ypperwing coverts and flight feathers are relatively uniformly greyish-brown, usually with slightly paler feather edges on most feathers. The rump and uppertail coverts are white with some blackish spots. The short, squared tail is greyish. The underparts (breast, belly, sides, flanks, undertail coverts)are whitish with heavy, dense blackish-brown barring throughout. The underwing coverts are largely whitish, contrasting with the mostly dark underparts and grey flight feathers. The neck and nape are whitish with dense, fine blackish-brown streaking and mottling, including on the chin, throat, and malar area. The lores and ear coverts are rufous and the crown is rufous with fine blackish streaking; the supercilium is whitish and mostly unmarked. The iris is dark, the long, slender, slightly drooping bill is blackish, and the legs and feet are greenish-yellow.

Non-breeding adult
This plumage is acquired in late summer or early fall (August-October) and retained into the following late winter or early spring (February-early May); very few individuals, except occasional adults during the latter part of fall migration, are observed in this plumage in B.C. Birds in non-breeding plumage have uniformly pale greyish upperparts (back, scapulars, upperwing coverts) that contrast with the mostly clean white rump and uppertail coverts and the darker grey flight feathers and primary coverts. The tail is greyish, as in breeding plumage. The underparts are primarily whitish with some faint greyish speckling on the breast and sides, rarely extending into short, faint streaks on the flanks. The underwing coverts are whitish. The head and neck are pale greyish, with faint, fine, slightly darker grey streaking or speckling on the sides of the face and neck, a darker brownish-grey crown, darker grey lores, and a whitish supercilium. Bare part colouration is similar to breeding-plumaged birds.

Birds retain this plumage into fall (September) of their first year, and the vast majority of individuals encountered in B.C. are in this plumage. The upperparts (back, scapulars) are primarily dark blackish-brown with pale feather edges; the scapulars are variably edged with rufous. The feathers of the upperwing coverts and tertials are brownish and are finely edged with pale buffy-white, giving the entire upperparts a distinctly scaly appearance. As with the adults, the rump and uppertail coverts are whitish and the tail is grey. The underparts are primarily whitish with a variable buffy wash on the breast and sides and often some fine grey or buffy-grey streaks on the sides and flanks. The head and neck are greyish-white with a variable buffy wash, with fine grey streaks on the sides of the face and neck, a whitish chin and throat, a whitish supercilium, darker brownish-grey ear coverts, and a darker and browner, finely dark-streaked crown. Bare part colouration is similar to that of the adults.

Total Length: 21-22 cm
Mass: 48-68 g

Source: Klima and Jehl, Jr. (1998); Sibley (2000)



The long legs, slender build, and white rump allow for relatively easy separation from other species of Calidris, although the Curlew Sandpiper (a vagrant in B.C.) approaches the Stilt Sandpiper in all of these characteristics and is the most likely potential confusion species in that genus. Note, however, that even the Curlew Sandpiper is not as long-legged or slender as the Stilt Sandpiper, and is intermediate in these characteristics between the Stilt Sandpiper and Dunlin. Juvenile Curlew Sandpiper should be easily distinguished from juvenile Stilt Sandpiper by a combination of its shorter blackish (vs. greenish-yellow) legs, prominent white wing stripe (wing stripe absent in Stilt Sandpiper), and fine pale scalloping or scaling on the upperparts (upperparts not as distinctly scaled in Stilt Sandpiper, which also shows rusty scapulars that are absent in juvenile Curlew Sandpiper).

Stilt Sandpiper is perhaps more likely to be confused with species outside of the genus Calidris, such as Lesser Yellowlegs and Wilson’s Phalarope; both of these species also tend to frequent the same shallow-water habitats that are preferred by the Stilt Sandpiper and share the general shape and structure as well as the white rump and unmarked wings of that species. Lesser Yellowlegs can be distinguished from the Stilt Sandpiper by its overall greyer appearance, lack of pale feather edges or rusty scapulars on the upperparts, barred tail (tail uniformly greyish in Stilt Sandpiper), and longer, brighter yellow legs. It is also a much more vocal species, regularly giving whistled too-too-too call notes (Stilt Sandpiper is very quiet during migration). Wilson’s Phalarope in juvenal plumage is distinguished from juvenile Stilt Sandpiper by their plumper body, cleaner and whiter face and underparts, very thin and straight (needle-like) bill (the bill of the Stilt Sandpiper is noticeably thicker and slightly drooped towards the tip), and shorter legs that bareful extend past the tip of the tail in flight (feet and lower legs extend well past the tip of the tail in Stilt Sandpiper).

The Stilt Sandpiper is relatively quiet relative to many other shorebirds. The most commonly-heard call is a low, soft, muffled, husky toof or tyur. Rarely gives a sharper, wheezy keewf or a clearer koooWI. Display songs are exceedingly unlikely to be heard in B.C. (except, as with several other arctic-breeding shorebirds, potentially by occasional spring migrants); the male’s song is a nasal series of dry, buzzy trills: xxree-xxree-xxree-xxree-ee-haw, e-haw, with the concluding phrases sounding not unlike the braying of a donkey.

Source: Klima and Jehl, Jr. (1998); Sibley (2000)

Breeding Ecology

This species is a migrant through British Columbia and does not breed in the province.
Foraging Ecology

Migrating birds forage virtually exclusively on aquatic and benthic invertebrates, especially insects and their larvae, although a small percentage of vegetable material (particularly small seeds) is also consumed. The long legs of this species allow it to forage in relatively deep water, and it commonly wades belly-deep when feeding. While foraging, even when in deeper water, it probes the soft, muddy bottom or selects prey from within the water column, regularly submerging the head and neck in pursuit of these food items. When foraging in such a way, the bird’s relatively short bill (relative to species such as dowitchers) require it to tip its body well forward, which causes the tail back end of the bird to be raised above the horizontal (‘tipped up’). It also selects prey from the surface of the water or, when foraging in terrestrial environments, from the surface of the substrate. Foraging birds commonly associate with other shorebird species that frequent similar shallow-water habitats such as dowitchers, yellowlegs, and Wilson’s Phalaropes.

Source: Klima and Jehl, Jr. (1998)


The Stilt Sandpiper is characteristic of sheltered, brackish or freshwater, shallow-water habitats such as sloughs, estuaries, tidal channels, sewage lagoons, flooded fields, and open ponds and avoids beaches, exposed mudflats, and dry upland habitats that often support other species of shorebirds.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Klima and Jehl, Jr. (1998)


Global Range

Breeds locally in the arctic coastal regions of northern Alaska and northern Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut), also ranging east along the Hudson Bay coast of Manitoba and Ontario. It winters primarily in South America, but also occurs in smaller numbers north to the southern United States. North of South America, wintering birds occur locally from the Gulf coast of the United States (Texas, Louisiana) south through Mexico and parts of northern Central America, with isolated wintering populations elsewhere such as southern California (Salton Sea), Florida, South Carolina, northwest Mexico, and the Caribbean. Migration is mostly through the central and eastern portion of the continent, especially during the spring, although migrants are regularly encountered throughout western North America during fall migration (occasionally during the spring).
BC Distribution

This species is most common in the Peace River lowlands of northeastern B.C., where it is an uncommon spring and common fall migrant; it is rare elsewhere in northeastern B.C. during migration (e.g., Fort Nelson), most commonly during the fall. West of the Rocky Mountains, this species is casual during spring and rare to locally uncommon during fall migration in the central interior (Mackenzie, Prince George area, Chilcotin region) as well as south through the dry valleys of the south-central interior (Thompson-Nicola Basin, Okanagan Valley); it is very rare elsewhere throughout the southern and central interior during fall migration, including the Kootenay region of the southeast. On the south coast, it is casual during spring and locally uncommon during fall migration on southeastern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland and is accidental in spring and very rare to rare in fall elsewhere on the coast (northern and western Vancouver Island, southern mainland coast, Queen Charlotte Islands). West of the Rocky Mountain, the largest fall concentrations occur at Salmon Arm in the southern interior and the lower Fraser Valley (Ladner, Delta) on the south coast; daily counts during fall at these locations regularly encounter dozens of individuals, with exceptional daily counts in excess of 100 birds.

Spring migrants move through northeastern B.C. during a brief period in late May, with occasional late individuals lingering into early June. Spring vagrants throughout the rest of B.C. have also been observed primarily in mid- to late May or, exceptionally, into June. Fall migration is much more pronounced than the spring migration. The timing of fall migration is consistent throughout the province, with the first southward bound migrants appearing in early to mid-July. Fall migration continues through August and September, with some birds lingering on the south coast rarely into early to mid-October; the latest individuals in B.C. have occurred on the south coast in late October. Peak fall movements throughout the province occur between early to mid-August and mid-September, which is a relatively brief period compared to many other migrant shorebirds in B.C.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b)


Population and Conservation Status

This species is a relatively scarce migrant in British Columbia outside of the Peace River region, and has apparently always been of marginal occurrence in the province. Breeding populations in the western portion of the species’ breeding range (Alaska) have increased by 300-400% since the early 1980s, a trend that has been mirrored in the number of individuals documented migrating through Alberta. It is likely that this increase also affects migrants moving through British Columbia, and anecdotal evidence supports an increase in the overall migratory population in the province. For example, the species was listed as “very rare” during migration in B.C. outside of the Peace River area in Campbell et al. (1990b); however, it is now known to occur regularly in small numbers throughout much of the southern and central portions of the province, with some locations occasionally supporting concentrations of over 100 individuals. This may indicate that the increases on the Alaskan breeding grounds are now influencing the abundance of this species within the British Columbia portion of its migratory path. However, concurrent with the increases in the western portion of the species’ distribution are significant declines on the eastern arctic breeding grounds (e.g., Churchill, Manitoba), and the species may possibly be shifting its breeding distribution farther west.

The Stilt Sandpiper is a migrant in British Columbia, and has not been asigned a conservation status for the province by the B.C. CDC (Conservation Data Centre). It is also not recognized as a species of conservation concer at the federal level by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Klima and Jehl, Jr. (1998)


The Stilt Sandpiper is monotypic, with no recognized subspecies. Formerly considered the sole representative of the genus Micropalama, but further studies have indicated that it should be included in the genus Calidris despite its unusually long legs and slender proportions.

Source: Klima and Jehl, Jr. (1998)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeSUMUnknownNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2019. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 16/09/2019 3:08:10 PM]
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