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

Actitis macularius Linnaeus, 1766
Spotted Sandpiper
Family: Scolopacidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman
Photo of species

© Nigel Tate  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #12165)

Distribution of Actitis macularius 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 held between early spring (March-April) and late summer or early fall (August-September). The upperparts are brownish, sometimes tinged with grey or olive, and usually have (usually faint) darker marbling over the scapulars and wing coverts and irregular dark bars across the tertials. The flight feathers (primaries and secondaries) and primary coverts are dark grey or blackish, with a white stripe extending across the base of the inner primaries and outer secondaries and narrow whitish tips to the secondaries (these features visible in flight). The round-tipped tail is brownish or grey-brown (like the upperparts), with whitish tips to all but the central pair of feathers and alternating white and blackish barring across the outer 1-2 pairs of feathers. The underparts are whitish with variable black spotting throughout; the black spotting averages slightly heavier and more extensive in females. The crown, nape, hindneck, and ear coverts are brownish like the upperparts, with fine dark streaks on the crown as well as on the grayish-tinged cheeks and sides of the neck. There is a narrow black line from the base of the bill through the eye to the back of the ear coverts, bordered above by a narrow whitish supercilium. The throat and chin are whitish with black spotting. The iris is dark, the long, straight, slender bill is orange with a black tip, and the legs and feet are orange or flesh-pink.

Non-breeding adult
This plumage is held between late summer/early fall (August-September, rarely as early as July) and early spring (March-April). The upperparts, wings, and tail are similar to those of the breeding-plumaged adult but are noticeably greyer and more olive-tinged, with fine, faint buffy-olive fringes and narrow dark subterminal bands on the wing coverts when in fresh plumage. The underparts are wholly whitish, with the olive-brown or grayish-brown of the upperparts extending onto the sides of the breast; the undertail coverts usually have a few dark spots. The head and neck pattern is similar to that of the breeding-plumaged adult but, as with the upperparts, the crown, nape, hindneck, and ear coverts are greyer and more distinctly olive-tinged. The chin and throat are whitish and lack spotting, and the whitish supercilium is duller and less distinct than in breeding plumage, accentuating a thin white eye-ring. The iris is dark, the bill is dull olive-grey and often slightly brighter tawny at the base, and the legs and feet are grayish-olive and often tinged with yellow or orange.

This plumage is held until September or October of the first year, and is usually retained until the individual has reached the wintering grounds. It is similar in most respected to the non-breeding adult plumage, but the upperwing coverts are more strongly and noticeably barred with narrow black and buff bars. As well, the tertials show slightly more extensive black and buff markings around their fringes. These markings on the wing are often retained throughout the first winter. The undertail coverts lack black spots, as are present in non-breeding adults.

Total Length: 18-19 cm
Mass: 35-55 g

Source: Oring et al. (1997)



This species is distinctive in all plumages within the context of regularly-occurring North American shorebirds, especially during the breeding season when its underparts are extensively spotted with black. Its behaviour and, to a lesser extent, habitat choice (especially during the breeding season) are also distinctive in B.C.

Although it has not been recorded from B.C., the Common Sandpiper of Eurasia is a regular migrant through the Bering Sea islands of Alaska and has the potential to occur as a vagrant farther south along the Pacific coast of North America. It is similar to non-breeding and juvenile Spotted Sandpiper in all plumages (including breeding plumage) and can be very difficult to separate from that species without close observation. A juvenal-plumaged Common Sandpiper is the most likely plumage to be detected in B.C., and it is differentiated from similarly-plumaged Spotted Sandpiper by the following characteristics: 1) the relatively longer tail of Common Sandpiper, extending noticeably past the tips of the primaries during rest (tail tip extending only slightly past the end of the primaries in Spotted Sandpiper), 2) narrow but noticeable dark speckling along the entire edges of the tertials in Common Sandpiper (tertial edges mostly unmarked or sparsely spotted in Spotted Sandpiper), 3) more pronounced pale and speckled fringes to the scapular feathers of Common Sandpiper that contrast little with the pattern of the upperwing coverts (scapulars with few markings in Spotted Sandpiper, contrasting noticeably with the distinctly-marked upperwing coverts), and 4) the bolder and more extensive white wing stripe and white trailing edge to the secondaries of Common Sandpiper (less distinct and extensive in Spotted Sandpiper). Other minor, supporting characteristics include the duller, greener legs of Common Sandpiper (averaging brighter and often yellowish-tinged in Spotted Sandpiper) and the slightly browner upperparts of Common Sandpiper that contrast more noticeably with the white underparts (upperparts greyer and less contrasting in Spotted Sandpiper).

Source: Hayman et al. (1986); Paulson (1993)

The most commonly heard call is the alarm call, which is given throughout the year from both perched and flying birds. This call is described as loud weet weet or peet peet peet, often extended into a prolonged tweet-weet tweet-weet-weet tweet-weet-weet-weet in flight. On the breeding grounds, both sexes give a similar prolonged series of weet notes in flight that functions as a song. Both sexes also give a sharp, loud spink or spink-spink alarm call near the nest or chicks. Other calls include a variety of softer wheet, peet-peet, kerrwee, and tootawee notes that are used as contact calls between the adults and chicks. The calls are similar to those of the Solitary Sandpiper, but are somewhat lower-pitched.

Source: Oring et al. (1997)

Breeding Ecology

The majority of courtship activities are performed by the female, who initiates courtship by acting aggressively towards the male (chasing him from her territory, etc.) before switching over to more reproductive-associated behaviours. The courtship displays include ground-based territorial singing, ritualized nest-building, aerial flight display, and a ground courtship display. During the aerial flight display, the female arches upwards and holds her wings steady and pointed downwards for several seconds, causing her to rise sharply in the air. Many females are polyandrous, and will begin to court additional males (either near her initial territory or elsewhere) shortly after laying a clutch.

Nest building is initiated during the courtship activities and often begins within minutes (at most, a day) of the male and female encountering each other. Both sexes construct several shallow scrapes in the ground and, once the pair bond is firmly established and insects are suitably abundant, finish one or two nests within the territory for the reception of eggs. The nest is a simple, shallow depression in the ground that is lined with grasses, forbs, twigs, wood chips, or needles from within the immediate vicinity of the nest; occasionally, nests are unlined. The nest is 11-13 cm across. Most nests are somewhat concealed by overhanging vegetation, logs, etc.

Clutches of (1) 4 (6) eggs are laid between late April and early July (mostly in June), and the incubation period is (19) 20-22 (24) days. The female produces only one clutch per year with any given male, but may mate with several males over the course of the season and thus produce multiple (two or more) clutches. The male does the majority of the incubation, although the female will also assist on occasion (particularly with later clutches). The colour of the smooth, slightly glossy eggs ranges from off-white to pale buff (occasionally very pale greenish) with irregular dark purplish-brown or reddish-brown and pale grayish or purplish blotches and spotting. The last eggs have usually hatched in B.C. by late July.

The young are fully precocial upon hatching and leave the nest immediately (although they will remain longer in the nest during bad weather, and may sometimes return during their first night). The young are attended by the male for approximately four weeks after hatching, although the female occasionally assists with some of the parental duties. The down-covered chicks are greyish-brown on the crown and upperparts and whitish on the throat and underparts (tinged grey on the sides of the neck and sides of the chest). There is a very narrow blackish line through the eye, extending from the base of the bill to the back of the ear coverts, and a similar dark streak runs from the centre of the crown down the nape and onto the back. The wing pads, sides of the back, rump, and long down of the tail have very narrow, broken blackish-grey bars. The down of the rump is long and protrudes as a wispy tuft. The chicks molt into their juvenal plumage at 16-18 days of age, and are capable of sustained flight at 18 days. Dates for chicks in B.C. range from mid-May to late August.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Baicich and Harrison (1997); Oring et al. (1997)
Foraging Ecology

The Spotted Sandpiper typically forages on the ground in open habitats and consumes a variety of invertebrates (insects and their larvae, spiders, crustaceans) as well as, occasionally, small fish and tadpoles. It characteristically bobs its body when on the ground, especially when alarmed. It forages most often along the water’s edge or within 200 m of a water body, picking prey either from the surface of the ground, the surface of the water, or from low vegetation; regularly wades into shallow water. This species utilizes a variety of stitching, probing, or jabbing motions to capture prey, and has even been observed leaping into the air in pursuit of flying insects. It continually bobs its body while walking or foraging.

Source: Oring et al. (1997)


Breeding habitat includes a wide variety of open habitat types associated with water, including lakeshores, reservoirs, rivers, streams, and ponds, as well as less commonly along grassy coastal beaches and coastal islands. Often breeds along rushing mountain streams in association with species such as Common Merganser and American Dipper. Occasionally places its nest in open, grassy disturbed areas (roadsides, landings, etc.) adjacent to wet habitats. During the winter, the few individuals that occur in B.C. are closely associated with rocky seacoasts, islets, and jetties but will also occur in rocky estuaries, log sorts, cobble beaches, and even low elevation rivers and streams (especially those that support spawning salmon in the late fall). It tends to avoid extensive sandy beaches and mudflats during the winter. Migrants occur in virtually any freshwater or marine habitat from sea level to subalpine elevations.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Paulson (1993); Oring et al. (1997)


Global Range

Breeds across Canada and Alaska, north to the treeline, as well as across the northern and central portions of the United States. Winters along the Pacific coast of North America north to B.C., as well as across the southern U.S. and south through Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America to southern South America.
BC Distribution

Widespread and generally common breeder throughout all of British Columbia, including all offshore and coastal islands.

Rare to locally uncommon in winter on southeastern and western Vancouver Island (north to Tofino, Campbell River), the Gulf Islands, and on the extreme southern mainland coast (Sunshine Coast, Vancouver area). Most birds winter along the shoreline of Strait of Juan de Fuca, especially between Sooke and Port Renfrew. Casual in the southern interior (Okanagan Valley, Shuswap Lake, Creston Valley) in winter, as well as along the coast north of the Georgia Depression (north to Terrace and the Queen Charlotte Islands).

Migration and Vagrancy
Fairly common to common spring and fall migrant throughout B.C, usually as singles or small flocks of up to two dozen individuals. Spring migration occurs from late April to early June, with the earliest migrants arriving on the south coast and Okanagan Valley and few birds reaching northern B.C. before mid-May. Peak movement in the south occurs in mid-May, while in the north it occurs in late May. The northward-bound spring movement is much more pronounced in the interior than along the coast. Fall migration commences in mid-July and continues through October (most birds gone from the interior by mid-October), with stragglers on the south coast lingering into November or even early December.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b)


Population and Conservation Status

The Spotted Sandpiper is common and widespread throughout North America, including British Columbia, and its population appears to be stable. It is not recognized as a species of conservation concern in the province.


This species is monotypic, with no recognized subspecies. Forms a superspecies with the widespread Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) of Eurasia. This species is included along with the yellowlegs, Spotted Redshank, Willet, Wandering Tattler, Solitary Sandpiper, and Wood Sandpiper in a group of species known as the “Tringine” sandpipers (subfamily Tringinae).

Source: Oring et al. (1997)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeS5BYellowNot 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) 2021. 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: 2024-05-25 6:59:09 PM]
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