SPOTTED SANDPIPER  Actitis maculariusActitis macularius

Spotted Sandpipers are the most widespread breeding sandpipers in North America, having colonized their broad breeding and winter ranges by using  almost all habitats near water. These include everything from the shorelines of wild streams and lakes to urban and agricultural ponds. In these habitats they feed on a variety of invertebrates (in breeding season especially midges and mayflies) and an occasional small fish (Oring et al. 1997).

These shorebirds are easily identified in breeding plumage by the dense ventral spots on their breasts and bellies, and in all plumages by their habit of  teetering along the water’s edge. Their unique flight, low over the water with shallow, stiff wing-beats, is also characteristic (Oring et al. 1997).

Spotted Sandpipers have reversed sex roles with females, who are larger than males, arriving first on the breeding grounds, establishing territories and aggressively courting males. Males assume the primary parental role. Female chicks are at least as likely to return to the place of hatching as males for their first breeding attempt, and breeding females are at least as site-tenacious as males (Oring et al. 1997).

DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987-1992 field work seasons of the TBBA project, volunteers found 2 confirmed breeding sites in  latilong-quad 30099-A1, 4 probable and 8 possible sites for Spotted Sandpipers. These sites are away from the coast and range from the southern tip of the state to the northern Panhandle. Most sties are east of the 100th meridian and south of the 31st parallel. In Oklahoma atlasers found 2 confirmed and 6 probable breeding sites scattered widely (Howery 2004).

North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data indicate breeding occurs across southern Canada and the northern United States and south in the west to New Mexico, Arizona and northern California. Relative abundances were as high as 3-10 sandpipers per 40 km (25 mu) route in Idaho and Montana (Sauer et al 2008). Breeding also  occurs from  central Alaska across Canada to Labrador. These sandpipers winter in North America in the Pacific Coast states and provinces and in Gulf Coast states. They also winter in Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and northern and central South America (Howell and Webb 1995, Oring et al. 1997, Am. Ornithol. Union 1998).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Spotted Sandpipers are common migrants throughout Texas from late March to early May.  Too few dates are available in Texas to estimate dates, but  the breeding season is probably similar to that in Colorado (early May to mid-August; Nelson 1998). The fall migration period extends from early July to mid-October. These sandpipers are winter residents in Texas with  abundance varying from common to rare depending on latitude, elevation and temperature (Oberholser 1974, Lockwood and Freeman 2004).

BREEDING HABITAT. Spotted Sandpipers probably  breed in Texas in wetland habitats similar to those found by atlasers in Colorado. There 80% of breeding evidence came from the presence of fledged young in habitats characterized as lakes and streams with open water and wetlands with emergent vegetation (Nelson 1998). In Arizona breeding evidence came from a variety of upland wetland  and riparian habitats (Wise-Gervais 2005).

Spotted Sandpipers are polyandrous with some females laying separate clutches for different males. Building a nest is an important part of forming the pair bond with both sexes participating. Within a day after the pair meet, they dig one or more scrapes, usually within 100 m (330 ft) of water, but sometimes as far as 200 m (660 ft) away. One hollow is lined with dry grass and here the female lays about 4 smooth, off-white to pale pinkish buff eggs, spotted and blotched with shades of brown. The eggs are laid at about one day intervals. Incubation often starts with laying the first egg with both sexes participating. Later in the 21-day process about 2/3 of the males are doing all the incubation, as the females have departed to find another mate. One-third of females have 2 mates and clutches, 1/4 have 3 and some females have 4 or even 5. When many males are available, a female may lay the first egg of a new clutch as soon as 3 days after the last egg of her previous clutch was laid (Harrison 1979, Oring et al. 1997). These references contain photos of nests, eggs and young.

The precocial chicks start feeding and walking within their first day after hatching. Their legs and feet grow fastest, approaching adult length by  15 days while the bill takes almost four weeks to reach full length. Chicks are capable of sustained flight 16 days after hatching. The percentage of Spotted Sandpipers breeding in the year following hatching varies widely, but years of low productivity are apparently easily balanced by the high reproductive potential in favorable years. The maximum documented  lifespan is 12 years (Oring et al. 1997).

STATUS. Seyffert (2001) considers Spotted Sandpipers to be casual breeders in the Panhandle. The summer records shown on the map in Oberholser (1974) are spread much more widely than the sites on the TBBA map, but with very few breeding records. no conclusion can be drawn about changes in the breeding range (Lockwood and Freeman 20074. BBS data for North America (1980-2007) show a statistically significant annual population change of  -1.4%, derived from 896 routes (Sauer et a. 2008). Although few future breeding records can be expected in Texas for this sandpiper, continuous vigilance is necessary to protect the wetland and riparian habitats used by migrants and winter residents.

Text by Robert C. Tweit (2009)
Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited.

American Ornithologists’ Union. 1998. Checklist of North American birds, 7th ed. Am, Ornithol. Union, Washington, DC.

Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Howell, S. N. G. and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford University Press, New York.

Howery, M. 2004. Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius). In Oklahoma breeding bird atlas, pp. 148-149 (D. L. Reinking, ed.). University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Nelson, D. L. 1998. Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius). In Colorado breeding bird atlas, pp. 178-179 (H. E. Kingery, ed.), Colorado Bird Atlas Partnership, Denver.

Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Oring, L. W., E. M. Gray and J. M. Reed. 1997. Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Ithaca, NY. Retrieved from:

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2008. The North American breeding bird survey, results and analysis 1966-2007. Version 5.15.2008. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel MD <>

Seyffert, K. D. 2001. Birds of the Texas Panhandle. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Wise-Gervais, . 2005. Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius). In Arizona breeding bird atlas. pp.180-181 (T. E. Corman and C. Wise-Gervais, eds.), University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

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