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.
Juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper walking on the shallow riverbed
Pectoral Sandpiper foraging in grassland
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
19cm to 23cm
37cm to 45cm
31g to 126g
Breeding male pectoral sandpipers have a brown, streaky breast with a boldly striped brown band across it. They have a distinctive white belly and underparts, while their wings are rufous brown, tipped with buff, giving them a scaled look. The bill is slightly curved downwards and darker in breeding, becoming yellowish during the winter. Their long slender legs are yellow-brown.
Males and females are alike in coloring, although males are between 25 and 30 percent larger and heavier than females, which is less evident during the nonbreeding season. When breeding, males frequently have an enlarged neck, throat and chest. Nonbreeding plumage is similar to breeding plumage, although with a more brownish-grey wash.
Juvenile pectoral sandpipers are more finely marked than adults, and feathers are rufous edged with pale tips, giving them a more streaky appearance than mature birds. Younger birds also have a pale eye stripe.
Pectoral Sandpiper foraging on the beach
Shoreline birds slightly larger in size than the dunlin, there is a distinct difference in size between male and female pectoral sandpipers, which is especially noticeable during the breeding season.
Pectoral Sandpiper foraging for insects along the waters edge
Pectoral sandpipers are relatively vocal birds, with a distinctive hooting call that culminates in a harsh scream, heard in defense of territory and when displaying to attract a mate.
A jabbering call is used to chase off nearby birds in flight, while a vibrating ‘kirip, kirip’ call may be heard around the nest site, made by females to divert attention from their young or eggs.
Courtship and territorial calls given by males in flight are described as a hollow hooting sound, ending in a harsh screech. Hooting and screaming is particularly heard by male birds in pursuit of females shortly before an attempt at copulation occurs.
Pectoral Sandpiper hooting to attract a mate
A pectoral sandpiper’s diet consists of small invertebrates that inhabit muddy shorelines, including larvae and adult crane flies, midges, beetles and spiders.
Algae and plant material are also eaten, as well as some seeds. Occasionally crickets, grasshoppers, bees and wasps are also eaten, and in some regions, small minnows also feature in their diet.
Within hours of hatching, young sandpipers are able to walk and forage for themselves, feeding on small invertebrates found along the shoreline.
Shortly after hatching, the nest site is deserted in favor of wetter landscapes where adult insects are more abundant.
Pectoral Sandpiper feeding
Wet tundra landscapes of the Arctic offer ideal habitats for pectoral sandpipers to breed and successfully forage for a wide range of shoreline invertebrates. Vegetation cover is important, and boggy terrain is favored, due to the availability of midges and other small insects.
During the nonbreeding season, preferred habitats include saltmarshes, swamps, flooded plains and grasslands, with mudflats being of little to no importance.
In North America, breeding is limited to the northern coast of Alaska and across northwest Canada, including parts of Victoria, Devon, Baffin, Prince of Wales, and Southampton islands. The Eurasian range extends along much of the western coast of Russia, within the Arctic Circle, and throughout east and central Siberia.
During winter, pectoral sandpiper populations relocate to southern regions of South America, from Peru and Brazil in the north to the extreme south of Chile and Argentina in the south. Additional winter populations are found along the southern coast of Australia.
On rare occasions, pectoral sandpipers may venture as far as the UK, and they are the most commonly reported vagrant US wading bird species. However, there is no regular pattern to these arrivals and any sightings or reports of breeding are not well-enough established for them to be considered a regular occurrence.
In North America, pectoral sandpipers are found in Alaska, along the Bering Sea coast along to the Yukon Delta. The highest densities are found on coastal tundra landscapes within the Arctic Circle.
Further inland concentrations become less dense, although this varies from year to year, as little fidelity is shown to nesting sites, with different locations used each year.
Pair of Pectoral Sandpipers in their natural habitat
Due to their wide and largely inaccessible Arctic breeding range, obtaining accurate population estimates is difficult but the North American population has been estimated at around 1.5 million birds, meaning that although scarcely seen in many parts of the world, they are not especially rare.
Sightings in passage are relatively common both before and after the breeding season, particularly in wetland regions throughout the Great Plains as large numbers of birds make their way to and from their wintering grounds in the far south of South America.
Alaska is the only US state where pectoral sandpipers routinely breed, although large numbers may be seen in passage over east-central regions of the country, particularly in May when they can be spotted breaking their northward migration flight in the area between the Mississippi River to the east of the Rocky Mountains.
Pectoral sandpipers are scarce visitors to the UK, with only around 50 reported pairs breeding each year. Unpredictable sightings can occur at freshwater wetlands across the country, and there is no fidelity to previously used breeding grounds.
Juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper in-flight
Little is known about the average life expectancy of pectoral sandpipers, due to the lack of information available from banded birds. Breeding is thought to occur for the first time at 1 year. One claim to the title of the oldest recorded pectoral sandpiper is a ringed individual, found aged 5 years 11 months in 1983.
Common predators of nests and young pectoral sandpipers include jaegers (skuas), Arctic foxes, weasels, owls, gulls and ravens. During migration, peregrine falcons may successfully catch pectoral sandpipers in flight.
Pectoral sandpipers are listed for protection in the United States under the Migratory Birds Treaty Act 1918 and the Migratory Bird Convention Act, 1994, in Canada.
In the UK, pectoral sandpipers are offered protection by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which states it is an offense to kill, harm or capture them.
Assessing the population status of pectoral sandpipers is relatively difficult due to their wide distribution across somewhat inhospitable terrain. However, as with a number of migratory shorebirds, their population is believed to be in decline, which may be linked to the loss of wetland habitats along their migration routes.
Globally, they are considered a species of least concern and there are no imminent worries over their future survival. In the past, recreational hunting of pectoral sandpipers is believed to have had a significant impact on numbers, although this is no longer an issue.
Pectoral Sandpiper wading in shallow water looking for food
The nest site, selected by the female, is usually situated in a dry area tucked behind a hummock or on a ridge, covered by vegetation, for example dwarf willows.
A small depression is made on the ground, which is then molded into a cup shape, and lined with grass, sedge, leaves, lichen and moss.
It is thought that pectoral sandpipers are single-brooded, with eggs being laid in June or early July. Replacement clutches may be attempted into July if an earlier clutch is unsuccessful or lost to predation.
Eggs laid by pectoral sandpipers can be a variety of colors, including off-white, cream, buff and olive, with speckled markings that are brown, purple or gray. Eggs measure 38 mm by 26 mm (1.5 in to 1.0 in).
A typical clutch contains 4 eggs, which are incubated by the female alone for 21 to 23 days.
Pectoral sandpipers are a polygynous species, with no lasting pair bonds forming between males and females.
Males mate with several females throughout the course of a season but do not guard nesting females and play no role in the raising of young.
Pectoral Sandpiper displaying during mating season
Aggressive displays are only observed during the breeding season, with males displaying and posturing to assert their claim to a territory, although defense is purely territorial rather than relating to a female or their young.
A loud territorial screech may be heard when threats are detected. Females may also assume a ‘threat’ pose to drive off unwanted intruders, although they will rarely follow this up with any kind of chase or challenge.
Roosting takes place overnight, with pectoral sandpipers usually opting for safe spots concealed within dense vegetation, either alone or in small groups.
Towards the end of the breeding season, larger numbers of roosting pectoral sandpipers can be observed roosting on open mudflats, often with dunlins and other shorebirds.
Flock of Pectoral Sandpipers in-flight
Pectoral sandpipers have one of the most lengthy migrations of any bird species, covering distances of around 30,000 km (19,000 mi) each year.
Migration occurs between breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle and wintering grounds that are mainly located in southern and central South America.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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