Note white speckled back, yellow legs, white belly, and white eyering.
  • Note white speckled back, yellow legs, white belly, and white eyering.

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Solitary Sandpiper

Tringa solitaria
This is a large and highly varied group of birds that do not have many outward similarities. Most are water birds that feed on invertebrates or small aquatic creatures. The order is well represented in Washington, with seven families:
This large and diverse family of shorebirds is made up mostly of northern breeders that migrate long distances. Their highly migratory nature leads them astray fairly frequently, and rarities often show up outside their normal range. Many of these mostly coastal birds forage in relation to the tides, rather than the time of day. They use a variety of foraging techniques, but the most common techniques are picking food from the ground or water, or probing into wet sand or mud. Those that probe generally have sensitive bills that open at the tips. Most members of this group eat small invertebrates. Many make dramatic, aerial display-flights during courtship. Nesting practices vary, but both parents typically help raise the young. Clutch size is usually four, and both parents generally incubate. The young are precocial and leave the nest within a day of the hatching of the last chick. Most feed themselves, although the parents generally tend the young for a varying period of time. The female typically abandons the group first, leaving the male to care for the young until they are independent.
Uncommon migrant.

    General Description

    The Solitary Sandpiper is shaped like the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, but is smaller than both and has shorter, greenish legs. The bill is straight, thin, and of medium length. The dark back is covered in light spots, and the head is streaked gray. The head is dark enough that the white eye-ring is fairly distinct. The tail pattern, seen in flight, is distinctive. The outer edges are white, barred with black, with a dark center. The wings are entirely dark underneath, sharply contrasting with the white belly.


    During the breeding season, Solitary Sandpipers inhabit muskeg bogs surrounded by spruce. During migration, they are usually found along the banks of wooded streams, in narrow marsh channels, and sometimes along the edges of open mudflats. They can also be found in places not usually frequented by shorebirds, such as drainage ditches and mud puddles. This is predominantly a freshwater species and generally avoids tidal flats and salt marshes. Solitary Sandpipers winter in swamps and along river-banks.


    Solitary Sandpipers do not gather in flocks. They are extremely alert and one of the first species to give alarm calls in response to a perceived threat. These sandpipers usually forage in shallow water, picking up food items from the surface or probing into the water and mud. They may also use their feet to stir up small creatures from the bottom. Solitary Sandpipers bob the front half of their bodies up and down, a characteristic behavior of this genus. When alarmed, they often fly straight up in the air to escape, a flight pattern that is perhaps an adaptation to the closed wooded areas they inhabit. The Solitary Sandpiper's call sounds like high-pitched whistles.


    Aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates are the most common food of the Solitary Sandpiper. These include insects and insect larvae, spiders, worms, and tadpoles.


    The nesting biology of this species is not well known. Unlike most shorebirds, Solitary Sandpipers do not nest on the ground, but find an old, abandoned, songbird nest in a tree. (The nest is usually one that was built by an American Robin, Rusty Blackbird, Eastern Kingbird, Gray Jay or one of the waxwings--all of which build sturdy nests that are likely to survive a winter.) The male finds the nest, which the female reworks until it is suitable to her needs. She does not add any nest material, but may rearrange the lining. This nest is usually in a spruce or other conifer and may be 4'40 feet up. Both parents help incubate the 4 eggs for 23-24 days. The nestling state is not well known, but the parents are not known to feed the young, so they probably jump from the nest at an early age and start to find their own food. Fledging age is not known. A pair raises a single brood each season.

    Migration Status

    Long-distance migrants, Solitary Sandpipers breed in far northern areas of Canada and Alaska and winter in Central and South America.

    Conservation Status

    Solitary Sandpipers are dispersed at all seasons, and thus difficult to count. Most of their breeding habitat remains intact, although logging in boreal forests is an increasing threat. The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates the population to number 25,000 birds in North America.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    Breeding Solitary Sandpipers are found regularly in southern British Columbia, and there are a few confirmed breeding records in Oregon. There are no known breeding records in Washington, but it is possible that they have nested here. Solitary Sandpipers are uncommon migrants in Washington on both sides of the Cascades, though they are more common in eastern Washington. They are rare along the coast from mid-April through May and July through October, with the most numbers in late April and late August. In eastern Washington, their occurrence is similar to that on the coast, with some arriving earlier in April, and the bulge in numbers starting in the beginning of August. Adults typically migrate through first, with juveniles coming later in the summer and into the fall. Eastern Washington has fewer adults than does coastal Washington in the spring, but more juveniles in the fall. In western Washington, the most reliable locales seem to be small, wet areas in Skagit, Snohomish, and Thurston Counties. In Seattle, Solitary Sandpipers can sometimes be seen at the Union Bay Natural Area (King County). The ponds in Reardan (Lincoln County), west of Spokane, are also good spots to look for migrating Solitary Sandpipers.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest Coast RR RR
    Puget Trough UU RUU
    North Cascades RR RRR
    West Cascades R RR
    East Cascades R RR
    Okanogan RU UFU
    Canadian Rockies R UUU
    Blue Mountains R
    Columbia Plateau RR RUU

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

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    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern