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.
With mottled black-brown upper parts, dotted with white, and a white throat, wood sandpipers are similar in appearance to the related green sandpiper, but can be distinguished by their paler plumage and longer legs.
A dark brown eye stripe is topped by a paler eyebrow marking, and the iris has a pale ring. A wood sandpiper’s head, breast and neck are lightly streaked with paler greyish-brown. Their long slender legs are yellowish-green and their dark yellow bill is tipped with grey.
Females and males are alike in plumage, although females are slightly larger.
Outside of the breeding season, both sexes become less conspicuous, with upperparts becoming browner, and underparts and breast is washed with grey . Female wood sandpipers develop their breeding plumage slightly earlier in the season, which can be used as a key way to determine between the sexes.
Juvenile wood sandpipers are similar to mature birds, although their colouring is a slightly warmer, richer shade of brown, spotted with buff markings rather than white. The breast of younger birds is more grey than white.
Wood Sandpiper in its natural habitat
Wood sandpipers are the smallest members of the shank family of long-legged wading birds.
Females are slightly larger than males, a difference that is particularly obvious during the breeding season.
Wood Sandpiper feeding along the edge of a river
Flight calls of wood sandpipers are loud and repetitive, with the ‘deele’ and ‘tweedly’ notes carrying across long distances both in the day and during the night.
Common calls heard on the ground include a shrill ‘chiff-chiff-chiff’ cry.
Wood Sandpiper crying out
The typical diet of a wood sandpiper includes insects, worms, spiders, small fish, crustaceans and small aquatic invertebrates.
From a very early stage, wood sandpipers master the art of foraging for their own food, following their parents to feeding grounds and picking soft-bodied insects, larvae, spiders and worms off the earth’s surface.
Before long, they are able to eat harder-shelled crustaceans and snails as well.
Wood Sandpiper with an insect in its beak
As its name suggests, the wood sandpiper favours woodland environments, in particular boreal forest and coniferous woodlands, as well as peatlands and more open areas of swamp and marshland. Breeding wood sandpipers also thrive in scrubland and sparsely vegetated tundra landscapes.
In the non-breeding season, a woodland habitat becomes less important, with sightings more common in open marshland, paddy fields, sewage works, and along the edges of streams and lakes.
Wood sandpipers are migratory, and have a breeding range that extends across Europe from northern Scotland in the west to Scandinavia and Finland in the north, throughout Russia to SIberia to the east, and occasionally south as far as Poland and Ukraine.
Wintering grounds are found along the banks of the Nile through Egypt and Sudan, and across the entire African continent south of the Sahara. Winter populations also head to parts of the Middle East and South and South-East Asia.
The European population of breeding wood sandpipers is estimated at up to 1.4 million pairs, with the majority of these nesting in Russia (up to 1 million pairs). Finland reported an estimated 300,000 pairs in the 1980s, although numbers have since declined. Around 50,000 to 100,000 pairs breed in Sweden, with a further 20,000 to 40,000 pairs in Norway.
Wood Sandpiper in-flight
Within the UK, wood sandpipers are classed as rare breeding birds and are not commonly seen during the summer.
Sightings are more common during passage, but are not regular or guaranteed, so would definitely count as exceptional occurrence.
Up to 30 pairs of wood sandpipers breed in the UK each year, but these are limited to a small area of marshy land in the western Highlands of Scotland.
Sightings during migration are far more common, and have been regularly recorded in eastern and southern England from April to May and again from September to October.
Pair of Wood Sandpipers during the mating season
The oldest recorded wood sandpiper lived to 11 years and 7 months. No reliable data is available for the average life expectancy of the species, although breeding is known to occur from one year onwards.
Known predators of wood sandpipers include foxes, weasels, gulls, skuas, and birds of prey, in particular falcons and hawks. They are commonly observed to use a ‘broken wing’ distraction technique when predators approach to divert attention from their nest site.
In the UK, wood sandpipers are designated Schedule 1 birds under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which protects their eggs and nest sites against being destroyed or damaged, as well as making it illegal to kill, injure or capture individual birds.
Numbers of wood sandpipers have declined since the 1980s in many parts of their range, largely due to drainage of peatlands for construction and development. However, in some areas, population revivals are being noticed, due in part by conservation efforts to restore previously drained marshlands to their original state.
They are classified as Amber in the British Birds of Conservation Concern list but as a species of least concern in their wider global range.
Juvenile Wood Sandpiper
Wood sandpipers usually nest in shallow scrapes on the ground that are lined with moss, leaves and plant stems, concealed by dense vegetation.
Higher altitude nests are also common, with wood sandpipers frequently observed to reuse tree nests that have been abandoned by other species, including thrushes and fieldfares.
Breeding typically takes place between May and mid-July with wood sandpipers usually raising one single brood a year. Incubation lasts for 22 to 23 days and is shared between females and males.
Wood sandpipers’ eggs are a pale greenish-olive colour, with brown, black or purple scrawls. They measure 38 mm by 24 mm (1.5 in by 0.9 in).
Wood sandpipers form monogamous pair bonds for the length of a season and arrive on their breeding grounds already paired. They typically raise one brood together, with the male doing most of the parental care post-hatching. Once young have successfully fledged, pair bonds dissolve and do not last into the autumn migration.
Nest of a Wood Sandpiper with three eggs
An aggressive and territorial species, wood sandpipers can frequently be seen physically defending their feeding territories against other birds of the same species, with face-offs and confrontational flight displays.
Territorial behaviour is also observed during migration when individual birds quickly establish a claim to a foraging site and do not welcome company.
Overnight roosting spots of wood sandpipers include raised hillocks in flooded meadows, as well as in the low branches of trees.
Group of Wood Sandpipers in wetlands
Wood sandpipers are a fully migratory species, breeding across northern Europe and Asia, before returning to wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa, along the River Nile in Egypt and Sudan, and across much of South and South-East Asia.
Some limited breeding of wood sandpipers does occur in the UK, although by autumn, pairs have departed for their wintering grounds across southern and central Africa.
No wood sandpipers are resident in Britain all year round. Passage birds may be seen in migration in southern and eastern regions during the late spring and again between August and October, but these are temporary visitors en-route to their winter territories from breeding sites in northern Europe.
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
19cm to 21cm
36cm to 40cm
50g to 90g
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.
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.
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.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.