An arctic breeder that winters only as far south as the mid-Atlantic coast region, the Purple Sandpiper leads a cold existence. Foraging among rocks on shorelines during the winter, Purple Sandpipers are capable of swimming if caught by a wave, but walking and flying are their primary means of travel.
Purple Sandpipers typically first breed at age one or two. If chicks become separated from their parents, they can die of exposure in their first week. Apparently capable of a long lifespan, Purple Sandpipers have been known to live over 20 years in the wild.
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Description of the Purple Sandpiper
The Purple Sandpiper has a long, slightly downcurved bill that is yellowish at the base and black at the tip. It is chunky in shape. Tawny crown and streaked throat. Length: 9 in. Wingspan: 18 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter birds are dark gray on the head and upper breast.
Juveniles resemble breeding adults.
Rocky marine shorelines.
Insects and mollusks.
Forages by climbing on rocks.
Breeds in eastern Canada and Greenland and winters along the northern Atlantic Coast. Also occurs in Europe and Russia.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Purple Sandpiper.
Purple Sandpipers can be very tame in the winter and may allow a close approach.
Aerial courtship flights are performed on the breeding grounds.
The most common sound is a rhythmically repeated call given on the breeding grounds.
Winter Dunlin have plainer backs and all-black bills.
The nest is a depression on the ground.
Color: Olive or buff with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 21-22 days. ?
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the male for some time.
Bent Life History of the Purple Sandpiper
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Purple Sandpiper – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
ARQUATELLA MARITIMA (Brunnich)
This hardy northern bird has well been called “winter snipe” and “rock snipe,” for it is known to us only as a winter visitor on rocky shores. Although it does not breed quite as far north as some species, it migrates for a shorter distance and winters farther north than any other wader; in fact., the southern limit of its winter range is far north of the normal winter range of any other. A. L. V. Manniche (1910) saw only three purple sandpipers during three seasons in northeastern Greenland, and the Crockerland expedition saw only one iii northwestern Greenland in four years. Both expeditions were probably north of its normal breeding range.
Spring: As soon as spring asserts itself the purple sandpipers begin to desert their main winter range on the coast of New Eng. land, some leaving in March and only a very few stragglers lingering into May. On May 29, 1909, we saw a few late migrants on the south coast of Labrador, where I secured one in full nuptial plumage. Ludwig Kumlien (1879) says that the purple sandpiper is the first wader to arrive in the spring at Cumberland Sound.
The 4th of June Is the earliest date I met them at Annanactook; this was during a heavy snowstorm, and the earliest date possible that they could have found any of the rocks bare at low tide. The flock lit on the top of one of the small islands in the harbor and sheltered themselves from the storm by creeping behind and underneath ledges of rocks; they then huddled together like a flock of Quails in winter. I have often noticed the same habit with them in late autumn, while they were waiting for low tide.
Courtship: The same writer refers to a courtship performance, as follows:
As the breeding season approaches the males have a peculiar cry, resembling somewhat that of Actitssrus bertram ins, but lower and not so prolonged. When this note is uttered they assume a very dignified strut, and often raise the wings up over the back and slowly fold them again, like the upland plover.
Aubyn Trevor-Battye (1897) says:
Like all sandpipers, they do much of their courtship on the wing, chasing one another In circles with rapid turns and shifts. On the ground I have seen the male bird approach the female with trailing wings, arched back, and head low down, occasionally hopping, like a courting pigeon.
This species seems to be rather rare in Baffin Land. I have two sets of eggs, given to me by Capt. Donald B. MacMillan, collected with the parent bird at Cape Dorset. J. Dewey Sopet collected a female there, with enlarged ovaries, on June 8; but he saw only three birds during “the spring and summer of 1926 along the south coast of Baffin Island.” He says in his notes:
The first sandpiper observed by me the following spring was of this species, a solitary male collected on June 2, 1925, at Nettling Lake. The lakes were still icebound and the land mostly covered with snow, but here and there were small open pools. Along the border of one of these the bird was feeding in the thin layer of thawed mud among the grassy hummocks. On June 11, in the same locality near the Takuirbing River, several were observed and collected. When finished they emit a grating ick-ick-ick and when not too bard pressed will often light again a few yards away. They flush sluggishly, and when not come upon too abruptly will frequently elevate the wings leisurely above the back, as though stretching them before taking flight On the whole, at this time, they were comparatively fearless and permitted close approach. Only one was observed giving a vocal performance on the wing. It rose slowly from the ground to a height of 15 or 20 feet and leisurely flying over the tundra gave a series of low, musical staccato notes resembling to-wit-to-wit-towit-to-wit, etc. The performance continues unbrokenly while the bird remains in the air over a distance of 25 or 80 yards.
Nesting: Rev. Henry H. Slater (1898) says:
In the extreme north the nest is often quite close to the sea, little above high-water mark. But in Iceland and at the southern borders of its breeding range generally the purple sandpiper usually nests on the fells. My first nest, from which I shot the female mentioned above, was near the top of a high ridge in north Iceland, nearly 1,600 feet above sea level, on a small bare patch of recently uncovered ground amongst snow fields; it was a slight hollow In a withered tuft of Dryas octopetola, and rather a substantial nest for a wader, consisting of a good handful of leaves of Dryas and Salix lanata, a little short grass, two white ptarmigan’s feathers and a few of the parents’.
W. C. Hewitson (1856) quotes Mr. Wolley as saying that in the Faeroes, “it breeds sparingly on the very tops of high mountains, where I found its young at the end of June still unable to fly.”
Messrs. E. Evans and W. Sturge (1859) found the purple sandpiper breeding in Spitsbergen; they say:
The purple sandpiper (Triage moritine, Briinn.) was very abundant In Coal Bay (on the south side of Ice Sound, so named on account of a small quantity of poor coal being found there), and we found four of their nests on the high field. Beautiful little nests they were, deep In the ground, and lined with stalks of grass and leaves of the dwarf birch (Brittle nasa, L.), containing mostly four eggs of an olive green, handsomely mottled with purplish brown, chiefly at the larger end. We watched this elegant little bird: the only one of the Ut-a llatorcs we saxv: with much interest as It waded Into some pool of snow water or ran along the shingle, every now and then raising Its wings over Its back and exhibiting the delicate tint of the under side, at the same time uttering its loud shrill whistle.
No recent accounts of the nesting habits of this species seem to have been published and the data on eggs in collections seem to be rather scanty. I have never found a nest myself. Both sexes are said to incubate the eggs and share in the care of the young. The period of incubation is over 20 days.
Eggs: A very good description of the eggs is given by Seebohrn (1884) as follows:
The eggs of the purple sandpiper are four in number and remarkably handsome. They vary In ground color from pale olIve to pale buffish brown, boldly mottled, blotched, and streaked with reddish brown and very dark blackish brown. On some eggs the blotches are large, and chiefly distributed in an oblique direction round the large end; on others they are more evenly distributed over the entire surface; and on many a few very dark scratches, spots, or streaks are scattered here and there amongst the brown markings. The underlying markings are numerous and conspicuous, and are pale violet gray or grayish brown in color.
Frank Poynting’s (1895) colored plate of 12 selected eggs well illustrates the great variation in the beautiful eggs of this species. There are two distinct types of ground color ,green and buff. In the green types the colors vary from “yellowish glaucous” to a light shade of ” grape green ” ; and in the buff types from ” cream buff” to “dark olive buff.” They are sometimes evenly, but more often irregularly, spotted and blotched with various shades of brown, sepia,” “bister,” and “snuff brown,” sometimes boldly marked with chocolate ” and ” burnt umber ” and sometimes with great splashes of “vinaceous brown” overlaid with blotches of “chestnut brown” and “bay,” a handsome combination. The measurements of 100 eggs, supplied by Rev. F. C. R. Jourdain, average 37.3 by 26.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 40 by 28, 35.1 by 26.6 and 37.3 by 24.8 millimeters.
Plumages: The nestling is described in Witherby’s Handbook (1920) as follows:
Fore part of crown warm buff; black-brown median line from base of upper mandible to crown; crown and upper parts velvety black-brown, down with numerous cream and warm buff tips; nape light buff, down with sooty-brown bases; from base of upper mandible above eye to nape a black-brown streak, another short one from base of lower mandible, ear coverts as crown; cheeks warm or light buff, down with black-brown tips; remaining under parts grayish white, down sooty brown toward base.
The juvenal plumage is much like that of the summer adult, except that the feathers of tile crown are tipped with creamy white, as arc also the central tail feathers; the feathers of the mantle and scapulars are edged with huffy white; and the wing coverts and tertials are broadly edged wit.h the same color or tipped with pale pinkish buff. The juvenal body plumage is usually molted before the birds reach us on migration, when young birds, in first winter plumage, can be recognized by the broad white edgings of the median coverts and by a few retained scapulars and tertials. Some of these juvenal feathers arc retained through the next, the partial prenuptial molt. Subsequent molts and plumages are as in the adult.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt between August and November and a partial prenuptial molt from January to May; this latter involves most of the body plumage, but not all of the scapulars, back, rump, or upper tail coverts.
Food: The favorite feeding places of purple sandpipers are the wave-washed rocky shores of islands or promontories along the seashore, with a decided preference for islands. Here, where the rocks are fringed with rockweed, waving in the restless waves, or covered with barnacles and various slimy products of the sea, these sure-footed little birds are quite at. home on the slippery rocks, as they. glean abundant food at the water’s edge and skillfully avoid being washed away. Yarrell (1871) says that: it may be seen busily employed turning over stones and searching among seaweed for the smaller shrimps and sandhoppers which are to be found there, and It also feeds on young crabs, marine Insects, and the soft bodies of animals inhabiting small shells.
Witherby’s Handbook (1920) gives its food as: varied, including Insects: coleoptera (Otforh.ynch.us), diptera (larvae of Chironornus), also spiders, Thysanura (or CoZLcmbola), annelida and crustacen (Amphipoda, I8opoda, Orehestia, Tdotea, Gammarus, and Podocerus) as well as mollusca (Mytilus, Littorina, Purpura, etc.). Vegetable matter is also eaten including algae, grasses, moss, buds, and leaves of phanerogams and remains of cryptogams. Seeds of Cocl,,lcaria have been identified and small fish (Gobi4Za) nearly 1 inch long, as well as ova of lumpsucker.
Behavior: The flight of the purple sandpiper s’uggests at times that of the spotted sandpiper, for when disturbed singly along the shore it is apt to fly out over the water with rapid downward wing strokes and, describing a large semicircle, return to the shore some distance ahead. When flying in a flock the birds are often closely bunched, the whole flock wheeling and turning in unisou, showing alternately their dark bodies and their white bellies, in true sandpiper fashion. As a rule they do not make very long flights or fly very high. Their migrations are short and deliberate. They are rather sedentary birds and can generally be found in certain favorite localities all winter and year after year. But, as they shtw a decided preference for the outer sides of surf-swept ledges, they are not often seen from the land. They can swim almost as well as phalaropes and in calm weather they will often alight on half submerged seaweed or on the surface of the water. Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1905), who watched a flock on an island off Cape Ann, describes their actions as follows:
They finally alighted on a steeply sloping rock close to the water’s edge on the northeastern point of the Island so that they could be watched with binoculars and telescope from the shore. Fifty-eight birds were In sight and there were fully half as many more on the other side of the rock, hidden from view, except when they jumped up from time to time. The flock must have numbered 75. The tide was high and the birds were evidently trying to kill time until low water, when they could gather their food from the seaweed covered rocks. Most of them were resting, sQuatting on the rock with head to tile wind, their dark purplish-gray hacks contrasting strongly with their white bellies. Others were slowly raising their wings over their hacks, showing the white under surfnces. Again they were chasing each other. making the sleepy ones jump suddenly, or running up the rock to escape an unusually high wave, fluttering with their wings to help themselves. From time to time they were joined by bunches of from 5 to 10 others.
Voice: This species is a rather silent bird, but John T. Nichols says in his notes: “When about to take wing a flock of purple sandpipers is rather noisy, keeping up a swallowlike chatter, each singlesyllabled note suggestive of the flip of the tree swallow and of the kip of the sanderling.”
Field marks: A sandpiper seen on a rocky shore in New England in winter is likely to be a purple sandpiper. Mr. Nichols suggests the following field characters:
The purple sandpiper is a stockily built bird, which stands low and has a moderately long bill. Its breast and upper parts of a dark purplish gray match admirably the rocks on which it lives, and although darker are not very different in tone from the coloring of the red-hacked sandpiper in fall, with which species it might possibly be confused. 130th have a white line in the wing shown in flight, but in the purple sandpiper this broadens to a more conspicuous wedge of white backward on the inner secondaries and extends across the bases of the primaries as narrow edging to their coverts, rather than turning the bend of the wing into the primaries. The best field charactor is the color of legs and feet, which are of a dull but strong yellow, appreciable at a considerable distance. The basal third of the bill is of the same, but tinged with orange.
Fall: The fall migration of the purple sandpiper is a gradual southward movement along the Atlantic coast. It disappears from its breeding grounds early in September, but the main flight does not reach New England until November or December. What few stragglers have been seen on the Great Lakes were probably migrants from Hudson Bay. E. W. IHadeler writes to me that he observed one on the shore of Lake Erie, Painesville, Ohio, from October 22 to November 12, 1916, and again from October 24 to November 11, 1922. It is interesting to note the uniformity of the dates and the fact that the species was seen always on a stone breakwater, apparently feeding exclusively on the water-washed stones.
Winter: The purple sandpiper is the “winter snipe” of the New England coast, where flocks of from 25 to 75 or more may be found regularly on certain outlying rocky ledges. Here they seek shelter among the rocks from the flying spray and from the wintry blasts; and here they find their food washed up by the waves or hidden in the half floating beds of rockweed. On December 10, 1913, while we were shooting eiders on one of the outer ledges in Jericho Bay, Maine, a flock of about 50 of these hardy little birds seemed out of place in our rough surroundings. It was a cold, blustering day; the surf was breaking over t.he rocks and the sea was white with combing breakers; even the hardy sea ducks sought the shelter of the ledges; but these plump little birds seemed quite happy and contented as they huddled together in a compact flock on the slippery rocks. They were very tame and confiding; even the reports of our guns served only to make them circle out around the ledge a few times and then return to its shelter. Evidently this was their winter home. We did not have the heart to shoot any of them.
Mr. Nichols tells me that “very occasionally in winter, early spring or late fall, one finds single birds on the sandy beaches of New York or New Jersey south of the rocks.”
Range: Europe, Asia, and northeastern North America.
Breeding range: In the Old World the purple sandpiper breeds in the Arctic regions from Iceland, Norway, and Spitsbergen east to Nova Zembla and the Taimyr Peninsula. In North America the breeding range extends north to Franklin (Igloolik) ; and Greenland (Hare Island, and Shannon Islands). East to Greenland (Shannon Islands and Ivimiut). South to Greenland (Ivimiut and Ivigtut); and Franklin (southern Baffin Island, Cumberland Sound, and Winter Island). West to Franklin (Winter Island and Igloolik). It has been detected in summer still farther north; Franklin (Mercy Bay, Fury Point, Boothia Felix, and Possession Bay); and Greenland (Bowdoin Bay, Thank God Harbor, North Star Bay, and Fort Conger).
Winter range: The purple sandpiper winters farther north than any other shore bird. North and east to southern Greenland (Ivigtut) ; eastern Nova Scotia (St. Peter’s Island); Massachusetts (Rockport, Westport, and Boston) ; Rhode Island (Cormorant Rock); Connecticut (Saybrook and Faulkner Island); and rarely New York (Gull Island, Montauk, and Amityville). South to New York (Amityville). West to New York (Amityville); Connecticut (New Haven); Maine (Cumberland County, Matinicus Island, and Washington County); New Brunswick (Grand Manan and the Bay of Fundy); Prince Edward Island; and southern Greenland (Ivigtut).
Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Franklin, Annanactook, June 4, Winter Island, June 10, Cambridge Bay, June 10, and Igloolik, June 14; Greenland, about 720 north latitude, May 29; and Baffin Island, Cape Dorset, May 30.
Late dates of spring departure are: New York, Sag Harbor, April 18, and Long Beach, May 4, Rhode Island, Sachuest Point May 15; Massachusetts, Dennis, May 5; and Quebec, Prince of Wales Sound, May 27, Quatachoo, May 29, and Mingan Islands, May 29.
Fall migration: Early dates of fall arrival are Quebec, Bras d’Or, August 4; New Brunswick, Grand Manan, August 13; Ontario, Toronto, October 27, Ottawa, October 29, and Hamilton, October 31; Maine, Metinic Green Island, August 6, Saddleback Ledge, August 19; Massachusetts, Cape Cod, September 6, Chatham, September 8, and Nahant, October 13; Rhode Island, Sachuest Point, September 13; and New York, Montauk, November 1, Orient, November 1, and Long Beach, November 2.
Late dates of fall departure are: Greenland, Possession Bay, September 1, and Thank God Harbor, September 3; Mackenzie, Great Bear Lake, September 16; and Franklin, Wellington Channel, August 28, Kingwah Fjord, September 6, Cumberland Gulf, September 13, and Pangnirtung Fjord, October 21.
Casual records: The purple sandpiper has been reported as seen at the entrance to St. George Harbor, Bermuda, and there are a few records for the south Atlantic coast and the interior, among which are: New Jersey, Delaware Bay (specimen in British Museum), Beach Haven, October 31, 1896, and one found dead at the Abseco~ Lighthouse; Georgia, one in the Sennett collection taken, March 5, 1874; Florida, Key Biscayne, October 29, 1857, and Gordan’s Pass, November 1, 1886; Missouri, Boonville, between April 16 and May 31, 1854; Illinois, near Chicago, November 7, 1871; Ohio, Sandusky, November 19, 1925, and Painesville, October 22, 1916, and October 24, 1922; and Wisconsin, Door County, May, 1881.
Egg dates: Qreenland: 18 records, May 16 to June 30; 9 records, June 1 to 19. Iceland: 6 records, May 21 to June 17. Baffin Island; 2 records, July 21 and 28.