Breeding plumage. Note: black speckled breast and belly.
  • Breeding plumage. Note: black speckled breast and belly.
  • Breeding plumage. Note: black spots on breast and flanks, and orange bill with black tip.

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Spotted Sandpiper

Actitis macularius
This is a large and highly varied group of birds that do not have many outward similarities. Most are water birds that feed on invertebrates or small aquatic creatures. The order is well represented in Washington, with seven families:
This large and diverse family of shorebirds is made up mostly of northern breeders that migrate long distances. Their highly migratory nature leads them astray fairly frequently, and rarities often show up outside their normal range. Many of these mostly coastal birds forage in relation to the tides, rather than the time of day. They use a variety of foraging techniques, but the most common techniques are picking food from the ground or water, or probing into wet sand or mud. Those that probe generally have sensitive bills that open at the tips. Most members of this group eat small invertebrates. Many make dramatic, aerial display-flights during courtship. Nesting practices vary, but both parents typically help raise the young. Clutch size is usually four, and both parents generally incubate. The young are precocial and leave the nest within a day of the hatching of the last chick. Most feed themselves, although the parents generally tend the young for a varying period of time. The female typically abandons the group first, leaving the male to care for the young until they are independent.
Fairly common summer resident. Rare winter west.
  • Sound To Sage

General Description

Spotted Sandpipers are distinctive shorebirds with bold, dark spots on their undersides during the breeding season. The beak is relatively short, straight, and yellowish in breeding plumage. In non-breeding plumage, Spotted Sandpipers lose most of their spots.


Spotted Sandpipers breed in a variety of freshwater habitats from sea level to alpine areas, although they are not as common at higher elevations. Nesting near streams, rivers, and lakes in open and wooded country, they require a shore for foraging and herbaceous cover for their nests. During migration and winter, they can be found almost anywhere near water, including mudflats, beaches, breakwaters, sewage ponds, and even in irrigation ditches. They prefer fresh water, but can also be found along salt water during migration.


Spotted Sandpipers are fairly solitary, and are seldom seen in flocks. They are well known for their habit of bobbing their rears up and down, and this can be a good way to identify them. Their flight is also characteristic'they fly low over the water with shallow, stiff wing-beats and bursts of flapping and gliding. When foraging, they pick up items from the surface of the ground or water, but will also grab insects out of the air. They forage right at the edge of a body of water.


Spotted Sandpipers eat a wide variety of invertebrates.


Spotted Sandpipers are polyandrous'the female breeds with more than one male. Females are fully dominant; they are larger than males and arrive first on the breeding territory. The female stakes out a territory and displays to attract a male. The nest is on the ground, partly concealed by a log or a rock or hidden in vegetation, and lined with grass, twigs, and feathers. The female lays 4 eggs, and then leaves the male to incubate them while she finds another mate. In this way, she may breed with up to four males, each of which will raise a clutch. The female will often raise a final clutch herself. Incubation lasts for 19 to 22 days. The young leave the nest soon after they hatch. The male tends the young for at least four weeks, although they find their own food. Some populations are monogamous, and in those instances, the female will help tend the young. The young can fly weakly at 15 days, and by 18 days are capable of sustained flight.

Migration Status

Some Spotted Sandpipers migrate short distances to the southern United States and Pacific Coast, but others travel as far as South America. They generally arrive in Washington the first or second week of May. Most adults leave by late July or August, and juveniles follow by September or October.

Conservation Status

Spotted Sandpipers are the most widespread breeding sandpiper in North America. They are thought to have declined in many parts of their range in recent decades, possibly due to habitat loss and pesticides, which are both potential threats. However, they are still common range-wide. In Washington, Breeding Bird Survey data indicate that the population has increased significantly since 1966. The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates the North American population at 150,000 birds.

When and Where to Find in Washington

Common breeders from May through September all over the state, Spotted Sandpipers are less common at higher elevations. Most are gone by November, although a small number winter in both fresh and salt water in Washington, mainly near the coast and in Puget Sound, in most years. Examine the edges of freshwater streams, sewage ponds, and agricultural ponds to find them.

Click here to visit this species' account and breeding-season distribution map in Sound to Sage, Seattle Audubon's on-line breeding bird atlas of Island, King, Kitsap, and Kittitas Counties.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest CoastRRRUFFFFUURR
North Cascades RFCCCUU
West Cascades UFFFFUR
East Cascades UFFFFFU
Okanogan CCCCC
Canadian Rockies FFFFU
Blue Mountains UUUUR
Columbia Plateau UFFFFU

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern