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.
Young Purple Sandpiper foraging
Purple Sandpiper foraging along the rocks edge
Purple Sandpiper walking along the waters edge
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
20cm to 22cm
40cm to 44cm
60g to 75g
Despite their colorful name, a vibrant purple plumage is not a distinguishing feature of this chunky shorebird. Instead, their appearance is rather drab: mostly pale gray in winter, with mottled gray and white underparts, yellow legs and a yellow, slightly downcurved bill that darkens to gray towards the tip.
Wings have a scaly appearance, with lighter edging creating overlapping patterning, and in some lights, a faint purple wash may be visible. A white wing stripe is visible in flight.
In summer, purple sandpipers develop a brighter set of feathers, with rufous and chestnut markings becoming visible on the upper wings, and browner speckling being a distinctive feature of their pale breast.
Male and female purple sandpipers are alike in coloring, although females tend to be slightly larger, with longer bills.
Juvenile purple sandpipers resemble breeding adults, with more chestnut fringing visible on their backs and upper wings, and a darker gray breast, more heavily mottled with gray-brown spotting.
Purple Sandpiper in natural habitat
Purple sandpipers are medium-sized waders, with rounded stocky bodies. Their relatively short legs give them a squat, thick-set appearance. Females are larger than males, with longer bills, but the differences are not always immediately clear in the field.
Purple Sandpiper foraging in the mudflats
One particularly common call of a purple sandpiper is a chuckling, rolling song, which is repeated as a series of grating notes. Contact calls are a squeaky, rasping call that sounds like a harsh ‘keer’. Flight calls are also distinct and low in pitch, making a ‘kip’ sound.
Purple Sandpipers resting on the rocks
Adult purple sandpipers follow a mixed diet, eating crustaceans, insects, plants and spiders. In winter, more molluscs, periwinkles, crabs, whelks and mussels are of importance, while on spring breeding grounds, more larvae, caterpillars, beetles, worms and algae are eaten.
Within 24 to 36 hours of hatching, purple sandpiper chicks are led to feeding grounds by their parents, and begin to feed themselves. Parents never feed their young, so they become independent relatively quickly, learning to forage for insects and their larvae on the tundra landscapes on which they live.
Purple Sandpiper feeding
During the breeding season, purple sandpipers’ preferred habitats are frozen tundra landscapes, moss-covered moorlands, lichen-rich plateaus and expanses of pebble or coarse sand shorelines.
During migration, stopovers are common along rocky coasts and occasionally at mudflats and sandy beaches. Winter months are spent foraging on rocky shores next to the sea, where they feed on seaweed-rich landscapes, sheltered by breakwaters and groynes.
Breeding is limited to stretches of coastline in the extreme northeastern Arctic regions of Canada, including Melville, Bathurst, Devon, Bylot, and Baffin islands and from the coast of Quebec to the coast of Newfoundland.
The breeding range extends across the coast of Greenland, to Iceland, the British Isles, Norway, Sweden, Finland and into Russia and Siberia, including offshore islands within the Arctic Circle.
During winter, the range of purple sandpipers expands southwards, reaching as far south as midway along the Atlantic coast of the United States, and in Europe, the species becomes more widespread across the UK, and takes up temporary residence in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands and the Baltic states.
Iceland is home to the largest share of global breeding purple sandpipers with up to 66,000 pairs nesting there annually and winter population estimates of up to 100,000.10,500 pairs breed in Norway, and up to 10,000 pairs in Russia. A further 15,000 pairs are estimated to breed in the extreme north of Canada.
There are up to 220,000 purple sandpipers around the world, distributed throughout the Arctic coastlines of northern Canada,Greenland, Scandinavia, Finland, Russia and offshore islands in Arctic waters.
Due to their ability to survive in the most inhospitable tundra landscapes, they are not particularly common in more southerly latitudes, and are considered rare breeding birds outside of these Arctic conditions.
During winter, sightings become slightly more common, with arrivals from breeding grounds reported from August onwards along the northeastern coast of the United States and in coastal wetlands of Scotland and northern England.
Pair of Purple Sandpipers on the rocks near to the sea
The majority of purple sandpipers that arrive to spend winters in the United States congregate along the coast of Maine, but they have a reputation as a hardy species and can be seen further north on the Atlantic coast than any other species, and are regularly spotted along the coast of Canada into the northeastern United States, as far south as the Carolinas.
Purple sandpipers are more common as winter visitors than as a breeding bird, although limited breeding does occur in Scotland. Most temporary winter residents are found along the eastern coast of Scotland and England, north of Yorkshire. Scotland’s Orkney and Shetland islands welcome large flocks of purple sandpipers each autumn.
Purple Sandpiper walking in to shallow waters
On average, purple sandpipers live for around 6 years, but much longer-lived individuals have been recorded, e.g. a ringed bird aged 15 years and 2 months was found in 1997.
Breeding is thought to occur for the first time at one or two years.
During the breeding season, Arctic foxes and jaegers (skuas) are common predators of purple sandpipers’ eggs. In winter, birds of prey, especially goshawks, sparrowhawks and gyrfalcons, will prey on adult purple sandpipers feeding in large flocks.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, introduced in 1918, made it illegal to capture a purple sandpiper, to seize their eggs or to intentionally kill or injure an adult bird or disturb their nest site or young.
In the UK, the breeding sites of purple sandpipers are kept secret to avoid encouraging egg thefts and nest disturbances. They are listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which states it is illegal to interfere with nest sites. The Act also offers protection against individual birds being killed, injured or taken into captivity.
The worldwide population estimate for purple sandpipers is between 170,000 and 220,000 birds, with the species rated of least concern globally.
Indications show that in Canada, their status may be upgraded to a species of moderate concern due to habitat loss and population declines.
In the UK, purple sandpipers have Red status in the British Birds of Conservation Concern list, due to the extremely low numbers of breeding birds each year.
Purple Sandpiper walking along the beach
Simple scrapes on tundra landscapes are as sophisticated as a purple sandpiper’s nest gets. The male usually roughly works on several sites simultaneously, consisting of a rough depression directly on the ground. The female then selects her favorite option to lay her eggs in. A bottom lining of leaves is added before the clutch is completed.
The earliest clutches are laid from mid-May onwards (in Iceland) but the peak-laying period is around a month later at higher latitudes.
Only one brood is raised each year. Young purple sandpipers are able to walk and feed themselves within the first 24 to 36 hours of hatching, and are usually cared for by one parent for the first 4 to 5 weeks.
Purple sandpipers’ eggs measure around 38 mm by 26 mm (1.5 in by 1 in), and are pale brown in color, heavily patterned with dark brown scrawls and blotches.
Incubation is shared, although the lion’s share falls to the male. A typical clutch consists of 3 or 4 eggs, which hatch after 21 to 22 days.
Long-term monogamous pair bonds are commonly observed in purple sandpipers. Many birds return to their former breeding sites already paired, and raise young with the same mate for several consecutive seasons.
Purple Sandpipers resting in the rocks
Confrontational posturing is used to drive intruders away from nesting territories, with birds displaying their white underwings in an intimidating stance. Territorial clashes may also occur, with chases between males not uncommon.
Purple sandpipers living in higher Arctic latitudes that freeze in winter move southwards after the breeding season if their habitat becomes impossible to survive in. Frost-free landscapes are necessary for foraging for molluscs, crustaceans and invertebrates, and during the nonbreeding season, temporary relocation is common, until conditions ease the following spring.
Breeding purple sandpipers are found in the Arctic regions of northeastern Canada, with migration to more southerly latitudes once breeding is complete. Wintering grounds for North American purple sandpipers are located along the northeastern Atlantic coast of the United States, and reach as far south as South Carolina.
A couple of pairs of purple sandpipers breed annually in Scotland, but they are not widespread and are far more common as a winter visitor than as an established breeding bird in the UK.
Purple Sandpiper in-flight
Although it does not have vibrant mauve or lilac feathers by any stretch of the imagination, in some lights, a purple sandpiper’s plumage does have a faint purplish shimmer, which gives the species its colorful name.
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.
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.
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.
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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