One of the world’s smallest wading birds, little stints cover enormous distances on their annual migrations between breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle and winter territories in southern Africa and South Asia. A handful of individual birds spend winter in the UK, and records of vagrant birds reaching North America are occasionally reported.
Little Stint foraging in muddy waters
Little Stint feeding in shallow pool
Little Stint standing on the shore
Little Stint feeding on the beach
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
12cm to 14cm
34cm to 37cm
20g to 40g
The little stint’s plumage changes through the year, with breeding adults having brownish-grey upperparts that are tipped with rufous edges, and bright white underparts. Breeding adults have orange-buff markings on the breast and yellowish-orange cheeks that are streaked with brown. On the upper back, a distinctive white V can be seen, which helps give a positive identification, even from some distance away.
In winter, identification of little stints becomes slightly more difficult, due to similarities with the red-necked stint. Winter plumage is mostly grey, mottled with darker feathers along the back, wings, and crown, and white breast, belly, and underparts with some light speckling on the flanks. Their head and crown are the same mottled brownish-grey, with a paler stripe alongside the eye
Females and males are alike in colouring in both breeding and non-breeding plumage, although females are marginally larger. They both have brown-grey legs, a fine, dark bill, and unwebbed toes.
Juvenile little stilts are smaller than adults and have pale grey stripes along their crowns. Their neck and upper back are also grey, while the breast is lighter, with a pinkish wash. Young little stints have a distinct eye stripe that is streaked with darker markings.
Little Stint (non-breeding plumage) feeding along the shoreline
Little stints are the smallest wading bird species to regularly be recorded in the UK. They are around two-thirds the size of dunlins, a fellow wader that they are frequently seen foraging on coastal mudflats alongside.
Female little stints are usually slightly larger than males.
Little Stint in the tundra
The most common call associated with a little stint is an extremely high-pitched, short ‘peet’ or ‘tip’. A series of rapid trilled ‘tree-tre-tree’ notes can be heard in flight.
Little Stint wading through the shallow water looking for food
The typical diet of a little stint consists of invertebrates, although in winter some plant matter may also be eaten. On breeding grounds, flying insects and their larvae and small beetles are the primary foods, especially mosquitoes, and craneflies.
A little stint’s diet becomes more diverse on its wintering grounds, where ants, freshwater mites, flies, beetles, parasitic wasps, leeches, small molluscs, and crustaceans are the most common foods.
Shortly after hatching, little stints are able to forage for themselves, picking up food by sight from the muddy wetlands and wet grasslands. Larvae, beetles, and small flying insects are among the most common elements of their early diet.
Little Stint feeding in a shallow pool
During the breeding season little stint populations are mainly concentrated on low-altitude tundra in the high Arctic, preferring dry ground with cover of dwarf willows that border swamps and salt marshes, as well as grassy landscapes covered with moss and sedge.
During migration stopovers, little stints are found on the muddy shores of rivers, inland lakes, reservoirs, and sewage farms, as well as on coastal mudflats and beaches.
The preferred winter habitats of little stints include coastal areas such as estuary mudflats, enclosed lagoons, tidal creeks, and saltpans, as well as inland freshwater wetlands, marshes, paddy fields, and sandbanks along rivers.
Little stints are migratory, breeding from northern Scandinavia through the Russian Arctic islands of Novaya Zemlya and across north-west and north-central Siberia.
The species’ winter range extends from around the European and North African Mediterranean coast southwards through sub-Saharan Africa, although absent from west-central Africa. The range spreads through the Arabian Peninsula and around the Persian Gulf eastwards to South Asia.
Small numbers of little stints spend winters in south-eastern England, and rare vagrants are sometimes recorded in North America.
Little information is available for the numbers of breeding little stints in particular locations across Russia, Siberia, and northern Scandinavia, but we do have more data available for their preferred wintering destinations.
Between 250,000 and 500,000 individuals spend winter in Sudan, and more than 100,000 in Egypt.
Southern Africa’s key wintering grounds are at coastal wetlands in Namibia, which have reported a decline in numbers of little stints between 1999 and 2013.
Little Stint on the shore of a lake with prey in its beak
In the UK, little stints are considered a rare winter visitor, with only around 8 individuals recorded annually. Passage sightings are more common, with around 770 recorded each year.
On a wider scale, little stints have a secure population of more than 1 million individuals estimated in northeast and east Africa and southwest Asia, and a further 200,000 birds in south-central Asia.
Sightings of little stints are very occasionally reported in the US, with more than two dozen records of the species in North America since 1975.
Sightings of these rare vagrants are mainly concentrated in the northeastern regions of the country, along the Pacific Coast of the United States and in Alaska.
During passage migration, little stints may be best observed along the eastern and western coasts of England, on coastal wetlands and mudflats, feeding with other wading birds, most usually dunlin.
Autumn passage migration is the best time of year for a sighting, with sightings of juvenile birds on brief stopovers particularly common from August to October.
Little Stints resting on rocks near to the sea
The average lifespan for little stints is around 3 years, with the oldest recorded birds from ringing data reported to be 8 years 10 months.
The age at first breeding is unknown, although one-year-old birds have been recorded at breeding grounds.
Barbary falcons are an especially ruthless predator of little stints during migration passage. Skuas and snowy owls prey on little stints and their eggs and young when a particularly bad year for lemmings impacts their usual preferred food sources.
In the UK, little stints are protected from being knowingly killed, injured, or taken into captivity by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, of 1981. Rare vagrant birds in the United States are offered similar protection by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
With a global population of between 1.5 and 1.6 million birds, little stints are currently not threatened with decline and are rated as a green species on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Some declines are recorded in winter populations in parts of southern Africa, due to habitat loss to wetland reclamation, but the breeding population is classed as stable.
Little Stint foraging in the mudflats
Nests are constructed on open tundra, with a shallow scrape on the ground lined with a small cup of leaves and lined with grass. Occasionally vegetation may be used to cover the nest itself.
Little stints return to breeding grounds from mid-May to June, and eggs are usually laid between late June and mid-July.
One brood a year is typical, with incubation (by both parents) lasting for 20 to 21 days. As an occasionally polyandrous species, it is not unheard of for females to raise a second brood with a different mate, and in these cases, the original male mate will take over care duties for the first clutch.
Eggs laid by little stints are buff in colour and are heavily marked with dark brown scrawls. They measure 29 mm by 21 mm (1.1 in by 0.8 in), and a typical clutch consists of three or four eggs.
Little stints courtship and mating are complicated and varied, with reports of both monogamous and polyandrous breeding. No fidelity is shown to previous breeding sites and it is unlikely that pairs will reform in subsequent years.
Little Stint in the tundra
Little stints are loosely territorial, but no real aggression is shown on feeding sites and nests are established in fairly close proximity to one another.
Outside of the breeding season, little stints become more gregarious with large flocks of up to a thousand birds gathering to feed at some coastal wetlands.
Flock of Little Stints in-flight over the bay
Little stints are a fully migratory species, undertaking lengthy journeys of over 12,000 km (7,500 mi) between wintering and breeding grounds.
Arctic tundra breeding grounds become uninhabitable from autumn onwards, prompting little stints to head south to spend winters in Mediterranean Europe, Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and into South Asia.
While there is no evidence for breeding pairs of little stints in the UK, a tiny number of birds do spend winter in the UK each year.
Sightings in the UK are far more common of little stints in passage, with nearly 800 records each year of birds spotted on brief stopovers as they make their way towards their wintering grounds as far away as southern Africa.
Little Stint standing in natural habitat
Little stints are the smallest species of wading bird to regularly visit the UK, and their tiny size often helps with identification.
Autumn plumage, which is most commonly spotted in UK passage birds, features two pale stripes that run down the back, giving the appearance of braces.
The Eurasian woodcock spends days roosting in dense, damp woodland undergrowth, and evenings and nights foraging in open fields as well as woods for worms and beetles.
The UKs breeding population of Wood Sandpipers are limited to an area of swampy marshland in the Highlands of northern Scotland, although they are far more commonly sighted in passage during their spring and autumn migrations as they make brief stopovers in southern and eastern England.
A long-legged wader, closely related to the curlew, the Eurasian whimbrel, has small breeding populations established on the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney. Migrating whimbrels may be spotted along Britain’s coastlines as they undertake long-distance migration flights between Arctic tundra breeding grounds and wintering territories in Africa.
The Ruddy Turnstone is an attractive shorebird, frequently seen flipping stones in search of small creatures sheltering beneath. These long-distance migrants visit temperate and tropical coastlines across the globe but return to the Arctic each year to nest.
One of the smallest wading bird species to visit British shores, the Temminck’s stint is now classed as a ‘former breeder’ in the UK, with breeding pairs no longer regularly observed. Passage migrants may still be seen, particularly on the eastern coast in May.
Spotted redshanks have a distinctive black spotted summer plumage that UK residents are unlikely to see in birds on British shores, as the species is only a rare winter visitor or spotted in migration passage. Several hundred spotted redshanks make brief stopovers on British coastal wetlands each year, en-route to and from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.
The Snipe is a common but shy wader seen throughout the United Kingdom. These cryptic birds make a living by probing marshy ground for invertebrates in the mud below.
Sanderlings run tirelessly along sandy beaches, rushing down to feed as the waves recede and sprinting back, seemingly hoping to keep their feet dry. Their comical antics and non-descript looks belie an impressive avian that makes remarkable migrations between Arctic nesting grounds and overwintering grounds as distant as the southern tips of South America and South Africa.
A rare breeding wading bird in the UK, ruffs are among the most intriguing bird species on Earth, due to the diversity not just between males and females, but also between the three distinctly different types of males that occur.
Named for its red-orange legs, the Redshank is a common and noisy wader of the United Kingdom. These wary birds are present throughout the year, although they are most numerous in the winter non-breeding season.
Unlike many wading bird species, in red-necked phalaropes the traditional roles are reversed. The female is larger, brighter and leaves parental care of the young to the drabber, smaller male. Also, unusual for waders, red-necked phalaropes spend up to 9 months at sea once breeding in the upper northern hemisphere is complete.
A hardy wading bird that thrives in the bleak Arctic tundra landscapes of northeastern Canada, Greenland and Iceland, purple sandpipers arrive on wintering grounds along the northeastern coast of the United States and the UK each autumn, to forage for molluscs and crustaceans on rocky shores and coastal headlands.
Pectoral Sandpipers are mid-sized waders that breed on wet tundra landscapes across the northernmost extremes of North America and the Siberian Arctic. Their epic annual migration return trips of up to 30,000 km are one of the most lengthy of any bird species, similar to those undertaken by the Arctic tern.
Red knots, known simply as ‘knots’ in the UK are medium-sized shorebirds that undertake impressive annual migrations of up to 30,000 km (18,000 mi) each year between Arctic breeding grounds and southern coastal wintering habitats.
Highly camouflaged and elusive, the jack snipe is a small wading bird that spends winters on mudflats and freshwater wetlands across Britain. Smaller and less common than the UK’s other native snipe, the common snipe, jack snipes are harder to spot due to their tendency to crouch low and remain hidden among reeds.
The grey phalarope’s winter and summer plumage are so distinctly different that the species is known by an entirely different name in the US. In the UK, the bird’s name reflects its post-breeding plumage, which is dominated by light grey and white. However, in the US, it is known as the red phalarope, after the more vibrant orange-red plumage seen during the breeding season.
A medium wading bird, named after its brightly coloured legs, the greenshank breeds in northern Scotland, as well as further to the east across Scandinavia and Russia. In winter, an influx of greenshanks descends upon wetlands and marshes and along the coast of south-west England, Wales, Ireland and north-east Scotland. Tens of thousands of birds migrate significantly further afield, reaching the coasts of Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.
Green sandpipers are stocky shorebirds similar to the common sandpiper. They spend winters at inland freshwater wetlands in southern Europe and northern and central Africa after raising their young in swampy forests and wet woodland landscapes across northern Europe.
The Dunlin is a small wading bird from the sandpiper family Scolopacidae. Dunlins breed across North America and northern Europe, and Asia and are one of the most widely distributed wading birds, with ten subspecies.
Identified as being from a group of birds known as Waders, within North America they are generally referred to as Shorebirds. This monotypic species, a long distance migrant, is considered to have an Amber Conservation Status otherwise known as Near Threatened.
The largest European wading bird, the Eurasian curlew is easy to identify with its elongated bow-shaped bill and spindly legs. In winter groups of curlews known as ‘curfews’ forage together in coastal wetlands, and up to 66,000 pairs breed in the UK and are resident all year round.
Belonging to a group of birds generally called waders or shorebirds, the common sandpiper prefers freshwater habitats as opposed to saltwater locations.
An impressive, proud looking wader with particularly fine summer plumage which migrates south from its northern breeding grounds from July to October, returning for the summer from late February through April.
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