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Rock Sandpiper

These shorebirds have a limited range, but their numbers are stable.

Occupying high latitudes for much of the year and wintering only as far south as northern California, the Rock Sandpiper tolerates weather and environments that seem inhospitable. Migratory movements are thought to take place during the day, but otherwise little is known about Rock sandpiper migration.

Rock Sandpipers are capable of swimming, but most foraging is done on foot, either on the surface or snow or ice, or in rocky, intertidal areas. Rock Sandpipers appear to have fairly high annual survival rates, and have been known to live over seven years in the wild.


Description of the Rock Sandpiper


The Rock Sandpiper is a chunky shorebird with a relatively long, tapered bill.

– Black breast patch.
– Reddish crown and upperparts.

Rock Sandpiper

Photograph © Alan Wilson


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter birds are dark gray above and on the crown.


Juveniles resemble breeding adults.


Rocky coastlines.


Insects and other invertebrates.


Forages by walking on rocks or mudflats.


Breeds off western Alaska and winters along the northern Pacific coast. Also occurs in Russia.

Fun Facts

Rock Sandpipers gather in large flocks to molt in the fall.

On the breeding grounds, displays and parallel runs or flights along territory boundaries help reduce the need for fighting.


A trilling song and cheeping calls are given on the breeding grounds.


Similar Species


The nest is a plant-lined scrape.

Number: 4.
Color: Olive with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 20 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Rock 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 Rock Sandpiper – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



As explained under the Aleutian sandpiper, this bird is probably not a subspecies of the purple sandpiper; so the name maritima can not be used for either ptilocneinis or couesi. I have therefore thought it best to follow Ridgway (1919) in the use of his names for the Pribilof and Aleutian sandpipers, rather than use the Check List names.

The Pribilof sandpiper has the most restricted distribution of any North American sandpiper. In summer it is confined to the chilly and foggy uplands of the Pribilof Islands, the equally cool, damp lowlands of St. Matthew Island, Hall Island, and perhaps St. Lawrence Island, all in Bering Sea. And its known migration range is limited to a few localities on the mainland of Alaska and in the Aleutian Islands, where it probably winters. It may breed more extensively on St. Lawrence Island than it is now known to do, but it has not yet been found breeding anywhere on the mainland. G. Dallas Hanna (1921) says:

I strongly suspect that the birds have some other extensive breeding ground than St. George, St. Paul, and St. Matthew Islands, because in September and October large flocks come to the two former islands; these appear to contain many more individuals than are in existence on all three. Whether St. Lawrence Island supplies the extra number or not remains for future determination. The winter range of the species Is practically unknown, the only records being from Portage Bay, southeast Alaska, and Lynn Canal, between Alaska and British Columbia. The appearance of the birds at the former locality in flocks in spring, (If identifications were correct) indicates that they wintered farther south, probably on Vancouver and other islands of British Columbia. They could hardly have come from beyond these localities and have remained undiscovered.

Spring: The same writer says:

Spring migration takes place the latter part of April and the first half of May. My earliest record for St. Paul Island is April 15 (1915) when a flock appeared at Northeast Point. The height of migration is a little later than that date and may usually be expected from the 1st to the 15th of May. Birds are almost invariably paired upon arrival. Very few spring flocks have been seen on the Prlbilofs, and they do not tarry by the beaches, but go directly to the upland nesting sites. It seems to be uncommon for more than the resident population to land upon an island in spring. The birds seem to go directly to the chosen breodiag grounds, wherever they may be. This fact Is of wide application among the northern shore birds. Only rare stragglers of such species as golden plovers, turastones, and pectoral and sharp-tailed sandpipers stop at the Pribilofs on their way north, but large numbers of some of them come in fall.

Courtship: Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) writes:

The male of the pair seen by me on St. Lawrcnce Island in June kept flying up some 10 or 15 yards, its wings beating with a rapid vibrating or tremulous motion, while the bird thus poised trilled forth a clear, rather musical and liquid but hard, whistling note, which Is probably the same note which Elliott likens to the trIll of the tree frog. The short song ended, the musician glides to the ground upon stiffened wings and resumes his feeding or stands silently for a time on a projecting rock or knoll.

Nesting: We found Pribilof snndpipers very common in July on the low tundra at the south end of St. Matthew Island, where they were evidently breeding just back of the beaches. They were also common in the interior at the north end of this island and on the highlands of I-Jail Island. We collected a few specimens of the birds, but had no time to hunt for nests. We are indebted to Mr. Hanna (1921) for his excellent account of the nesting habits of this bird, from which I quote as follows:

On St. George Island the high upland tundra has been chosen for breeding ground. Here, among the reindeer “mosses” and light gray, lichen-covered rocks the sandplpers reign supreme in the fog. Some speculating may be indulged in to find a reason for so unusual a choice of locality. Elevations up to 500 feet are sought. Perhaps they shun the seacoasts on account of the presence there of large numbers of foxes. During all history this has been a greater fox island than either St. Paul or St. Matthew. On the latter island in June and July the birds may be found in large numbers around and back of the drift-wood piles. If it were not for this fact being known, we might suspect that on St. George the light gray tundra was selected for protective purposes, the birds themselves being distinguished chiefly by their light colors. St. Paul Island, for some unaccountable reason, is not chosen as a breeding ground except by a very few pairs. In 1919 not over a dozen were found during the entire nesting season, when almost all of the available areas were seen.

On the breeding grounds of St. George and St. Matthew the birds are very common, and from one to a dozen are in almost constant attendance upon the visitor. They sight him from afar and fly to meet him. Some bird will almost always try to lead him astray. If followed, it flies from knoll to knoll, often not more than 20 yards away. It remains in front of the visitor regardless of the direction he may take; whether toward or from the nest, makes no difference. After several minutes of this a sudden flight, with the familiar “song,” is taken to some distant bill and the searcher for a nest is left confused and confounded.

A search for the nest will exhaust the patience of any except the most persistant collector. Messrs. Compton and Partch have been more successful than anyone else in locating them, and all of us agree that when a bird flies to meet the visitor, as just described, it is a pure waste of time to watch or follow it. Every method known to us of locating nests by watching the actions of the parents has failed. We have located nests and then endeavored to establish rules for guidance with others, but no definite facts could be determined. It was finally agreed that it was useless to watch a bird under any drcumstances more than 15 minutes. If the location of the nest is not disclosed in that time, it is safe to assume that the mate is on it, and it might be hours before the guard would go there. In the meantime it mae’ fly half a mile away and forget to come back, even to tease the hopeful collector lying concealed in the mist and fog behind some cheerless rock. No definite range can be ascribed to any one pair of birds, because those off the nests mingle indiscriminately. Very often a bird will fly completely out of the range of vision in the fog.

The action of a bird leaving a nest is unmistakable, and can always be recog nized, once it is learned. It is a quick, excited, jerky flight, very close to the ground, and the bird goes but a very few yards until it feigns injury in its en deavor to entice the intruder away. It will always flutter in front of a person, even though he walk directly toward the nest. When the bird is seen to fly, the eggs are even more inconspicuous and difficult to find unless the exact spot from which it flew be located. Crompton thus flushed a bird which he knew had a nest, but ha was at a loss to find it. At last he left his cane as nearly as possible where the nest should have been and repaired to a near-by rock to watch and wait. In a few minutes the bird returned to the eggs, which were located about a yard from the stick. When the bird is flushed from a nest it seldom happens that the other parent is near.

The nest is a mere depression about three and a half Inches wide by two and a half inches deep. Most of the material is removed, but it is evidently packed down to a certain extent. No foreign material is carried at all. The nest is usually, but not necessarily, on some very slightly elevated ground and among the lichens called “reindeer moss.” Some nests have been found where there was an admixture of Hypnurn moss and again where the dwarf willows creep, rootlike, beneath the surface.

Eggs: I can not do better than to quote again from Mr. Hanna (1921); he writes:

The normal set of eggs consists of four. A greater number has never been found, and a less number only when it was uncertain if the full set had been laid. As much as three days may intervene between egg laying, but usually the four are deposited on successive days. When one set of eggs is taken, another will be laid. But the same nest is not used the second time, the contentions of some natives to the contrary notwithstanding. A set of eggs found as late as July 24, 1917, certainly indicated that two may be laid in the same season on rare occasions. One set is the rule.

The color of the eggs is, as would be expected, somewhat variable. The lightest set examined in connection with this report has the ground color “greenish glaucous.” From this there is perfect gradation through “court gray” and “light olive gray” to “deep olive buff” in the darkest set. Variation in any particular set is very slight. Spots are large and bold as a rule. They vary in size from 15 millimeters to less than one, and they are usually massed about the larger end. In one case the eggs are uniformly spotted with smell spots all over. In none is the spotting heaviest on the smaller end (reversed eggs). Spots are usually inclined to be round, but occasionaily they are in the form of streaks arranged roughly in spiral form. Only rarely are they banded about the larger end. In two cases a narrow black line was produced spirally on the larger cad. The coloration of the spots varies from “snuff brown” to “sepia” and from “cinnamon brown” to “mummy brown.” In some cases they are “raw umber.” The darkest shades occur where the spots overlap and some deep-seated ones are “pale aniline lilac” or “pale” to “deep quaker drab.” Only rarely is the outline of a spot not sharp.

The average dimensions derived from the above series of 72 eggs are: Length, 39.473 and breadth 27.468. Thoso which showed the extreme measurements were 42.0 by 27.8; 35 by 27.4; 37.6 by 39, and 39.1 by 26.4.

Young: The period of incubation is said to be about 20 days, in which both sexes share. William Palmer (1899) says:

The young leave the nest soon after hatching and are thoroughly well concealed by their mimicry of the confusing mixture of mosses, lichens, and other forms of vegetation which abounds and are so well Intermingled on these islands. It requires much patience and a close scrutiny to detect a crouching young, even when it is directly within reach. Obedient to their mother’s cries they flatten themselves with head and neck extended; with each yard of the ground precisely similar in pattern and color with every other yard, and the parents, especially the female, trying their best to coax us in other directions, and the uncertainty as to the exact location of time young, all combine against the collector, so that few specimens reward a tramp that seems exasperatingly needless. The young will not move, though one stands with the foot touching them, but when once handled and released they scamper off with all the quickness their long legs can give them. When we invade the vicinity of a nest or young it is amusing to watch the antics of the female. She invariably flies in front and flutters with feigned lameness but a few feet away. If the ground is rough it is more amusing to watch the precipitancy of her flight until she disappears in a hollow, to reappear in a moment on the other side, cautiously turning round and eying us to see if we are following. She always keeps in front of us, no matter which way we turn, and will continue thus for several hundred yards, when she wiil suddenly fly off to some distance and after waiting awhile will return to the vicinity of the nest or young.

Mr. Hanna (1921) writes:

So far as known, the food of both old and young consists of beetles and flies while the birds remain on the highlands; when they move to the ponds and seashores they eat copepods, amphipods, etc. As soon as the young birds are well able to fly they resort to the tide pools and small ponds near the sea. Later the older birds join them and the flocks increase in size to several hundred in favorable places. This takes place in August and September in such localities as the Salt Lagoon of St. Paul Island.

Plume ges: The color pattern of the downy young Pribilof sandpiper is similar to that of the Aleutian, but the colors are different, much duller. The bright browns and buffs of the tipper parts are replaced by “burnt umber,” “snuff brown,” “clay color,” and “cinnamon buff,” and the black markinas are largely replaced by dark browns; the black patch in the center of the back is about as in the Aleutian. The under parts are less pure white, always suffused with pale buff on the throat and flanks and sometimes largely so on the breast also.

Mr. Palmer’s (1899) studies of the molts and plumages indicate that they are similar to those of the Aleutian sandpiper; he writes:

The downy young are beautiful little things, silvery white beneath, bright, rich ocherous above, variegated with black and dots of white. The general color above lacks the grayness of the similar age of tuaritim us. The white dots are interesting under the microscope. They are composed of a bunch of highly specialized do~vn, in which the radii near the tip are crowded and colorless. As they grow older the first feathers appear on the sides of the breast. on the hack and scapulars; then the primaries and larger wing coverts appear. The feathering continues until the breast and under parts are covered, when the tail appears. At this time there are no feathers on the rump or on the head or neck. In the next stage feathers have appeared on the occiput and on the auriculars and are also extending up the neck. At the same time the tips of the back feathers have become somewhat worn, so that the colored margins are narrower and the black more prominent. The wing coverts are also to some extent worn ta their tips. When the bill Is an inch long the down has nearly all disappeared, and when it has entirely gone the birds appear in small flocks on the beaches, the young generally keeping together. Then another change takes place, for the entire plumage now gives way to another, that In which the bird passes the winter. A few late July, immature birds show the beginning, for No. IlS&32, tin. &, July 20, has a feas new feathers on the middle of the back and on the scapulars. They soot. extend all over the back, so that specimens collected up to August 10 have many of the new whitish feathers on that region. The contrast is striking between these feathers, the latest being of an almost even shade of pale plumbean with darker centers and generally with a narrow white margin. There are no specimens to show the complete change, but it is probable that these young birds remain on the islands until it is completed. By the middle of June the adults have fully changed to the breeding plumage, but on some specimens a few feathers of the previous winter’s plumage persist much later. Thus on many specimens some alternate feathers of the scapulars and tertials are of the previous winter’s well-worn plumage. In fact, few specimens ar~ free from these old feathers. Soon after the middle of July the new plumage of the next winter begins to appear. At first a few feathers show about the breast, then on the scapulars, thence up the neck and over the hea~l, so that by the 10th of August they have changed one-half. It would thus appear that before this species leaves the islands they assume entirely their new dress. And at this season, August 10, old and young flock together for the first time, and confine themselves to the sand beaches and surf margins about the islands for a few weeks, when they take flight by the 1st or 5th of September, and disappear until the opening of the new season.

The Pribilof sandpiper is much paler in the juvenal plumage and grayer in the winter plumage than the Aleutian.

Food: Preble and McAtee (1923) report on the contents of 192 stomachs, as follows:

The articles of food composing more than 1 per cent of the total were: Mollusks, 32.63 per cent; crustaceans, 29.15 per cent; flies (Diptera), 23.49 per cent; beetles, 10.29 per cent; marine worms, 1.27 per cent; and vegetable matter, chiefly algae, 1.21 per cent. The vegetable matter, besides algae, Included bits of moss and a few seeds of grass, lupine, violet, crowberry, and bottle brush.

Behavior: Referring to the habits of Pribilof sandpipers, Mr. Palmer (1899) says:

They appear stupid when solitary and without a family, and will stand perfectly still, eying one from a little eminence. Occasionally we are startled by a loud druuett from the side of a sand dune, and I was at a loss for some time to discover the owner of this most unmusical sound, which finally turned out to be an individual of this species standing motionless and watching us. It would seem impossible for this sound to have issued from this bird if I had not seen it in the act. These sandpipers have the habit in common with others of their kind of suddenly elevating the wing directly over the back. Often when alighting on the tundra, as soon as they stopped up went one wing, followed soon after, perhaps, by the other. Often while watching a flock on the lagoon beach first one would elevate a wing, then another; It was always the near wing which went up first. I never saw a bird elevate the off wing first. I know of no reason for their doing so. They are tame. I have walked up to a flock of about 50, and with care could drive them before me for some distance before they took flight, being but a few feet away. They are often seen feeding in the water up to their breasts, and seem to take delight in it. They swim readily, but not often. On June 30 I saw one fly ont to a stone In a pool, and after gathering afl the food possible it deliberately swam to another, and having visited each stone in the same way flew back to the shore and then bathed itself, occasionally taking a swim.

Voice: Mr. Hanna (1921) describes the notes of this bird as follows:

If a person climbs to the sandpiper country on St. George during May or June one of his first surprises will be a series of notes very much like those of the flicker, a full deep whistle repeated in the same pitch about a dozen times in quick succession. The bird utters this while on the wing, most likely when it is coming toward the intruder with great speed. When close by it wheels and settles lightly on a nearby hummock or “niggerhead.” One wing will be held vertically extended for a few seconds after alighting and may be flashed at short Intervals thereafter. Another note for which I have no descriptive language always reminded me of the sound of tree frogs. It is the note usually given when the birds are on the ground. While neither can be called a song they are very attractive and pleasant to the listener and most surprising to one familiar with the peep peep” of sandpipers in winter.

Field marks: In winter the Pribilof sandpiper looks much like the purple sandpiper; it frequents similar haunts and has much the same habits. But its summer plumage, with its rufous upper parts and mottled under parts, is strikingly different. It resembles the Aleutian sandpiper in all plumages, but it is decidedly larger and, in summer, its upper parts are lighter rufous and there is more white in the under parts.

Fall: According to Preble and McAtee (1923): About the middle of July, when the nesting birds are freed from family cares, they begin to resort to the beaches to feed, and at night gather in flocks to roost on some favorite rocky point Later the young join the adults and the flocks increase in size through August. About August 9 the birds began to be common about the beaches, the flocks there apparently being in excess of the number breeding on the Islands, and in all probability, therefore, comprised in part of migrants from other breeding stations. They continued to be abundant until my departure on the last of August.

The Pribilof sandpiper is too rare and beautiful to be treated as a game bird, but Mr. Hanna (1921) writes:

The birds possess some economic importance to the natives of the Pribilofs, and they have occasionally been eaten in the officers’ messes. Their habit of congregating In fairly compact flocks and their fearless unassuming nature make them easy targets. For this reason close watch should be kept of the numbers returning annually, and should any noticeable diminution take place strict prohibitive measures can and should be invoked. This is possible because the islands are under strict governmental control as regards all wild life. Because of its limited range it would not be a difficult matter to completely exterminate the species. Special protective measures at this time, however, are not believed to he essential because there is even less hunting now than there has been for fifty or more years. The introduction of livestock and reindeer for fresh food removes in large measure the necessity for shooting, and the native Is ordinarily too indolent to hunt unless he has to do so for food.

Range: Known only from the islands in Bering Sea and the coast of Alaska.

Breeding range: The Pribilof sandpiper breeds on the Pribilof Islands (St. Paul and St. George Islands) and north in Bering Sea to St. Matthew Island, Hall Island, and St. Lawrence Island.

Winter range: The winter range is imperfectly known, but it has been taken in this season at Portage Bay, Alaska, and probably occupies much of the Alaskan coast southeastward to (rarely) the Lynn Canal.

Migration: They have been noted in spring to arrive at St. Paul Island March 5; Nushagak, Alaska, April 1 to 14; St. George Tsland April 23; at St. Paul Island April 24; and Point Dall, Alaska, May 23.

Late departures in the fafl have been observed at St. George Island, October 3; and St. Paul Island November 16.

Early fall arrivals have been noted on the Alaskan coast at Igiak Bay, July 23; Tigalda Island, August 5; Unimak, August 14; and Dexter, Norton Sound, August 29.

Egg dates: Pribilof Island: 32 records, May 6 to July 2; 16 records, May 30 to June 11.



I prefer the above scientific name to the Check List name, because I can not believe that the Aleutian sandpiper is a subspecies of the purple sandpiper. The Aleutian sandpiper was originally described by Robert Ridgway (1880) as a distinct species. Later it was treated, and still stands on our Check List, as a subspecies of the purple sandpiper, because it somewhat resembles it in its winter plumage. In Mr. Ridgway’s (1919) latest work, he treats it as a subspecies of the Pribilof sandpiper, a closely related form, which had been previously described; he there describes it as “similar to A. p. ptilocnemis but decidedly smaller and much darker in color; the summer plumage with blackish and rusty or cinnamon-rufous predominating on back and scapulars, and all the colors much darker and more extended. Very similar in winter plumage to A. miritima, but summer plumage and young very different, both being conspicuously marked with rusty on back and scapulars, and the summer plumage with breast conspicuously blotched or clouded with dusky.”

Among a series of 11 birds of this species, which we collected on Attu Island, at the extreme western end of the Aleutian Chain, on June 23, 1911, are two birds which closely resemble ptilocnemis in color, but in size are typical of couesi. At least one of them was a breeding bird, the parent of a brood of downy young, and doubtless both of them were summer resident birds. Dr. Ernst Hartert (1920) has described the resident bird of the Commander Islands as a distinct subspecies, under the name Erolia maritima quorta, of which he says: “In full summer plumage the feather-edgings are broader than in any other form and brighter, more rusty red, so that the rusty red seems to predominate on the whole of the upper parts.” This description seems to fit our two birds from Attu Island very well; so that, if quarta is a recognizable form, as it seems to be, this subspecies should be added to our North American list. The birds could easily fly across from the Commander Islands to Attn Island and establish themselves there.

Spring: The spring migration of this sandpiper is not extensive. Many birds have remained all winter on or near their breeding grounds in the Aleutian Islands; others have wintered along the coast as far south as Washington. D. E. Brown tells me that they remain on Destruction Island until May 1 and that they have been seen on Forrester Island as late as June 15. H. S. Swarth (1911) found them “very abundant” on Kuiu Island during his stay there from April 25 to May 6; he writes:

In company with the black turnstone and some other waders, they frequented the broad mud flats, which, at low tide, extend over hundreds of acres at this point. As the tide advanced their feeding grounds became more and more restricted, until, as the last available spot was covered, the whole flock departed, with roar of wings, to some jutting rocks at the mouth of the bay, there to remain, preening their plumage and resting, until the receding waters again exposed the mud banks. The flocks seen at this place comprised many hundred individuals, and it is curious that the species was observed absolutely nowhere else.

Herbert W. Brandt says in his notes from Hooper Bay:

The Aleutian sandpiper is a common transient visitor in the vicinity of Point Dall and is said by the natives to be a breeding bird in the mountain fastnessea of Cape Romanzoff. This species was first identified by us on May 18, but it may have arrived a few days earlier because up to that time we did not suspect its presence. It associated itself with the red-backed sandpiper, to which in the field it has a marked superficial resemblance and in consequence we may have overlooked it. These birds at that time trnvelled in bands of from 20 to 40 individuals and at low tide fed on the ice-bound sea beach that was then exposed, but when the high water came in and up to the wall of shore ice, thus covering their feeding grounds, they moved back along the open river margins and marshy pond borders. From May 23 to May 28 they were very common, when suddenly they departed, only to reappear in early July. The natives are very positive in their assertions that this island dweller breeds in the rugged mountains about Cape Ilomeazoff, but as we did not visit that area we could not authenticate their statements, nor did we learn anything of its nidification.

Lucien M. Turner (1886) writes:

The Aleutian sandpiper arrives at St. Michnels early in May o~ each year, and In considerable numbers, being generally, on their arrival, in the dark plumage, which is changed for the summer by the first of June on this locality. On their appearance they are strictly littoral-maritime, resorting to the larger bowiders and rocky shelves covered with seaweed, among which these birds Industriously search for slugs and other marine worms. Usually several birds are together, rarely singly, and seldom over 8 or 10 in a flock.

Dr. Leonhard Stejneger (1885) says that, in the Commander Islands:

In March their ranks are reinforced by newcomers which have wintered on more hospitable shores, and in the latter part of the month enormous flocks of tiOO or more swarm along the beach, especially on the north shore. About one month later the great flocks dissolve into small companies, which, following the water courses, disperse over the whole island, settling in pairs on suitable places at the beaches, on the tundras, or on the mountain plateaus, this bird being in fact one of the most numerous and the most equally distributed species of land birds on the islands.

Courtship: We frequently observed the charming song flight of this sandpiper in the Aleutian Islands. The birds were especially abundant on Tanaga Island, where we found them nesting on the little knolls or hummocks on the tundra in a large alluvial plain back of the beach hillocks. The males were very active and noisy, indulging in their hovering song flights, rising 30 or 40 feet in the air and fluttering down while pouring out a delightful twittering song. Also, while flying about or while standing on some prominent hummock, they gave their loud, musical melodious calls of the upland plover; these loud notes were not heard anywhere except on their breeding grounds and were probably notes of greeting or of warning to their mates. Doctor Stejneger (1885) writes:

It was in the late afternoon of the 28th of April, 1883, that I first witnessed this singing performance of the sandpiper. The bird rose from the Rhododcadron tundra on the northern slope of Kamenali Valley, and while flying about on quivering wings, sometimes remaining Quite still in the air, it uttered a loud, agreeable, and melodious twitter, which really must be called a “song,” whereupon, with outstretched wings, it descended obliQuely, seating itself upon the top of a tussock. Sitting there, with puffed plumage and pendant wings, it produced a loud “bleating,” so much like that of Gallinogo gallinogo as to completely convince me that the analogous note of the latter is produced by the throat in exactly the same manner. During the “bleating” the whole bird was Quivering with a tremulous motion as if in a high state of excitement. The voice was slightly more melodious than that of the snipe.

Nesting: While wandering over the foothills of Kiska Island on June 17, 1911, I found my first nest of the Aleutian sandpiper. I was crossing a flat place, high up on a hill, covered with moss and scanty growth of grass, when the bii’d fluttered off almost underfoot, feigning lameness. The nest was a deep hollow in the moss, 3 inches in diameter and fully 2 inches deep, partially conecaled by a few blades of scanty grass, and lined with dead leaves, a few straws, and a few feathers of the bird. The four eggs were only slightly in~ cubated. I found a similar nest, containing three small, downy young, on Attu Island on June 23; the nest was on a little hummock on a hillside, a deep hollow, lined with dead leaves and bits of straw. It was the male bird that flew from the nest in both cases.

Austin H. Clark (1910) found a nest on Attu Island on the side of a mountain, 700 feet or more above the valley and near an extensive patch of snow. Alfred M. Bailey (1925) found a nest at Emma Harbor, Siberia, on July 4, 1921, containing three young and an egg; the nest was “on the shores of the bay, in gravel along the beach.” He also found several nests the following season near Wales, Alaska; “the nesting sites varied from exposed depressions in the moss to well-concealed dried grass.” A set of eggs in Edward Arnold’s collection, taken by Sheldon and Lamont on Montague Island, Alaska, June 22, 1916, came from a nest “on debris just above tidewater.”

Eggs: The Aleutian sandpiper almost invariably lays four eggs, although five have been found. These are ovate pyriform in shape and have a slight gloss. The ground color is “olive buff’~ or “deep olive buff.” They are heavily, boldly, and irregularly blotched. chiefly about the larger end, with a few scattering smaller spots. The markings are in dark browns, “chestnut brown,” “burnt umber,” and “seal brown,” varying with the thickness of the pigment. There are underlying blotches of “brownish drab,” producing very handsome eggs. They can not always be distinguished with certainty from eggs of the Pribilof sandpiper, as they vary greatly in size; they average smaller, but the measurements overlap widely. The measurements of 50 eggs average 38 by 26.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 43.2 by 26.8, 39.4 by 28, 35 by 26.3, and 37.3 by 24.1 millimeters.

Young: Incubation is apparently performed by both sexes, and both assist in the care of the young. The birds that I flushed from my two nests, one wit.h eggs and one with young, both proved to be males. Mr. Turner (1886) says:

The males nre much devoted to their mates while incubating, and I have every reason to believe that the male does the greater part of the labor of incubating, as they were the ones generally found either on or near the nests. When alighting near the nest either sex has the habit of raising its wings perpendicularly and slowly folding them, all the while uttering a trilling peep, continued for several seconds.

The parents are very devoted to their young, employing the usual tactics to divert the attention of the intruder, stumbling and fluttering over the ground, as if both legs and wings were broken. The young leave the nest as soon as they are strong enough to run, but remain with their parents until they are fully fledged in their first winter or juvenal plumage and ready to fly in August.

Plumages: The downy young Aleutian resembles, in color pattern, the young purple sandpiper, but can easily be recognized by its warmer and richer browns. The upper half of the head is “warm buff,” shading off to “pale buff” on the lores and cheeks and to pure white on the throat and neck. A median black stripe is broad on the crown, tapering to a point at the bill; loral and malar black stripes converge at the bill; the rest of the upper head is spotted or striped with black. The nape is a mixture of dull buff and dusky. The back, wings, and thighs are variegated with black, “ochraceous tawny” and “warm buff,” everywhere sprinkled with conspicuous dots, terminal tufts, of buffy white in an irregular pattern; there is a more or less well-defined black patch in the center of the back, varying in different individuals, centrally veiled with “burnt sienna” tips. The entire under parts are pure white.

In the juvenal plumage the center of the crown is blackish brown, with “ochraceous tawny” edgings; the rest of the crown and nape are “deep mouse gray”; the feathers of the back are brownish black, broadly edged with “tawny” or “ochraceous tawny”; the scapulars and all the wing coverts are deep sepia, broadly edged with colors varying from “tawny” to huffy white, whitest on the coverts; the under parts are white, with a broad band of pale buff across the throat and breast; the flanks are somewhat tinged with the same color; the throat, breast, and flanks are more or less heavily marked with median dusky streaks. This plumage is worn through July and part, or all, of August. The postjuvenal molt of the body plumage begins in some birds about the 1st of August, but in others not until two or three weeks later. This produces a first winter plumage similar to that of the adult, but distinguishable by the faded juvenal wing coverts and a few retained scapulars and tertials.

The partial prenuptial molt of both young birds and adults comes rather late in the spring, April and May, and involves the body plumage and some of the wing coverts and scapulars. Adults also have a complete postnuptial molt, beginning in August and lasting until October. The winter plumage is similar to that of the purple sandpiper, but it is conspicuously marked on the breast and flanks with large triangular or circular spots of dusky, whereas the purple sandpiper usually has a plain gray breast in winter.

Food: Very little seems to be known about the food of the Aleutian sandpiper, but probably its diet is very similar to that of the purple sandpiper, which has similar feeding habits. Both species are fond of frequenting rocky shores and stony beaches, where they seem to be gleaning food. Doctor Stejneger (1885) has seen them “at low water eagerly picking up Gammarids among the stones close to the breakers.” Bernard ,J. Bretherton (1896) writes:

Large flocks of these birds were seen during February, 1893, but were not met with during other winters. They were met with on a low sand bar, after a protracted storm which had thrown up millions of sand fleas, upon which they were feeding so industriously as to be easily approached and to which feast they returned several times, even after their ranks had been thinned by raking charges of fine shot.

Behavior: In many ways the Aleutian sandpiper reminds one of its near relative, the purple sandpiper, but it is even tamer, less suspicious, and quieter in its movements. We had plenty of chances to get acquainted with it in the Aleutian Islands. We met it, and collected the first specimen of it, on the first island that we landed on, Akun Island, and after that we saw it on every island we visited, though it was much more abundant on the more western islands. These bleak islands, with their forbidding, rocky shores and stony beaches, washed with cold spray or enveloped in chilly fog, are the summer home of this hardy little “beach snipe,” as it is called by the natives. It moves about so quietly and deliberately, and its colors match its surroundings so well, that we were constantly coming upon it unexpectedly. It was usually so intent on feeding that it paid no attention to passers-by; it was often necessary to back off to a reasonable distance before shooting one, and I shot several with squib charges in an auxiliary barrel. It is the tamest and most unsuspicious shore bird I have ever seen. On this point Mr. Turner (1886) says:

It is not at all shy, depending more on its color to hide by squatting among the crevices of the dark lava rocks and thus he unobserved. When cautiously approached, these birds generally run to the highest part of the rock or bowider which they are on, then huddle together before taking flight the moment ofter. This habit allows them to be nearly all killed at a single discharge of the gun. The native boys, having observed this habit of these birds, procure a club about two feet long, and when the birds huddle togeiher before taking flight the club is hurled in such manner as to sweep all the birds off the rock. This manner of procuring these birds is practiced by the western Aleut boys to a great degree.

Dr. E. XV. Nelson (1887) writes:

A pair were found feeding on a series of bare, jagged rocks, over which the spray flew in a dense cloud as every wave beat at the foot of the rocky shore. I shot one of them, and the survivor merely flew up and stood eyeing me silently from the top of a low cliff 20 or 25 feet overhead until it, too, fell a vict;n~. Later in the day another was seen near the harder of a small lake in the interior of the island. It ran nimbly on before me, over the mossy hillocks, stopping every few feet and half turning to watch my movements, just as a spotted sandpiper would do under the circumstances. When driven to take wing, it flew a short distance, with the same peculiar down-curved wings and style of flight as has the spotted sandpiper.

Hamilton M. Laing (1925) says that “on one occasion one was seen to swim nimbly from one rock to another rather than fly.”

Voice: Except on its breeding grounds, we considered the Aleutian sandpiper a very quiet and silent bird. Its twittering flight song is a part of the nuptial ceremony, and it was only on its nesting grounds that we heard the loud, musical, flutelike, whistling notes so suggestive of the melodious calls of the upland plover. Doctor Nelson (1887) describes what may be the same notes, as follows:

While on the wing it uttered a rather low but clear and musical tweo-tweotweo. When feeding it had a note something like a call of the Oolapte8 aura~ue, and which may be represented by the syllables ciu-clw-clu.

Mr. Clark (1910) also says:

The cry is loud and clear, bearing a striking resemblance to the call of the flicker.

Field marks: In winter the Aleutian sandpiper might easily be mistaken for a purple sandpiper, which it closely resembles in appearance, haunts, and behavior, but the winter ranges of the two species are widely separated. From the Pribilof sandpiper it differs in being decidedly smaller, and in summer it is much darker, with less rufous above and more black below.

Fall: The Aleutian sandpiper withdraws in the fall from the northern portions of its breeding range in Alaska and Siberia, and it may be that the birds which breed farthest north are the ones which migrate farthest south to spend the winter, for the species is resident throughout the year in the Aleutian Islands. In the Norton Sound region it evidently occurs only as a migrant from northern Alaska and Siberia. Doctor Nelson (1887) says:

Early In August, however, I was pleased to and it abundant in parties of from five to thirty or forty about outlying islets and along rugged pordons of the shore. During each of the four succeeding seasons the same experience was repeated, and the last of July or first of August I was certain to find the numbers of them In the situations mentioned, where earlier in the season not one was to be found. They always remained until the middle of October, when the beaches became covered with ice and they were forced to seek a milder climate. The 1st of October, as the first snnwstorms begin, these birds desert the more exposed Islets and beaches for the inner bays and sandy beaches, where their habits are lIke those of other sandplpers in similar situations.

Winter: This hardy sandpiper is well known to winter regularly and abundantly in the Aleutian and Commander Islands. According to notes received from D. E. Brown, it reaches the coast of Washington as early as October 1, where it spends the winter in Grays Harbor and Jefferson Counties and on the outer islands. Carl Lien’s notes, from Destruction Island, give it as a common winter resident. A flock of probably 50 spend the winter. Nearly always found in company with turnstones and surfbirds, and together wit.h these birds confine themselves entirely to the reefs.”

Range: The northeastern corner of Siberia, west coast of Alaska and adjacent islands, including the Aleutians, south (rarely) to northwestern Oregon.

Breeding range: The breeding range of the Aleutian sandpiper extends north to eastern Siberia (Emma Harbor) and Alaska (Cape Prince of Wales). East to Alaska (Cape Prince of Wales, Colville River, and Port Moller); and the Shumagin Islands. South to the Shumagin Islands; the western part of ï the Alaskan Peninsula (Muller Bay and Morzhovia Bay); and the Aleutian Islands (Unalaska, Atka, Tanaga, Kiska, Agutta, and Attu Islands). West to the Aleutian Islands (Attu) and eastern Siberia (Emma Harbor). The species also has been detected in summer at St. Lawrence and St. Matthew Islands and at other points on the mainland of Alaska (Point Dall, Pastolik, St. Michael, Nulato, and Port Clarence).

Winter range: Resident throughout much of its range, but also south in winter, along the Alaskan and British Columbian coasts and as far as Washington (Destruction Island).

Migration: The migrations performed by the Aleutian sandpiper are very limited. In the vicinity of St. Michael, Alaska, flocks will appear as early as August 15, occasionally remaining until October 15. They have been noted on the Asiatic side of Bering Sea at Providence Bay in June, at East Cape in July, at. Plover Bay in September, and on Bering Island as late as October 24.

Spring migrants have been observed to reach Point Etolin, Alaska, as early as April 8 and Bering Island April 24. Spring departures from the southern part of the winter range have been noted as late as: Destruction Island, May 1; Forrester Island, May 7; and Admiralty Island, May 14. An early fall arrival at Craig, Alaska, is August 6 and at Destruction Island October 1.

Casual records: This species has been collected or observed outside of its known normal range on a few occasions: Washington, Point Chehalis, November 6, 1917, and Dungeness Spit, March 4, 1916; Oregon, Cape Meares, December 31, 1912, and March 18, 1913; these may prove to be regular winter resorts.

Egg dates: Alaska: 18 records, June 3 to July 24; 9 records, June 15 to 22.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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