At a Glance
Seemingly adapted to tough conditions is this stout, short-legged sandpiper. It winters farther north on the Atlantic Coast than any other shorebird, and its chosen habitat is on coastal rocks pounded by the surf. When an especially large wave hits the rocks, the lowest birds in a flock may simply hop or flutter up far enough to evade the incoming water. Few birders ever see this species on its remote breeding grounds in the Canadian high arctic.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Sandpiper-like Birds, Sandpipers
Coasts and Shorelines, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Tundra and Boreal Habitats
Alaska and The North, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Southeast, Texas
Direct Flight, Rapid Wingbeats, Running
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Apparently follows coast in migration, seldom appearing inland. Fall migration much later than that of most sandpipers, not appearing on wintering grounds in numbers until November.
9" (23 cm). Chunky with short yellowish legs, yellow base to rather long bill. Dark slaty in winter, unlike any other shorebird on Atlantic Coast. Breeding plumage browner, less distinctive, but note shape and habitat.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Robin
Black, Brown, Gray, Orange, White, Yellow
Rounded, Short, Square-tipped, Wedge-shaped
Songs and Calls
A single or double twit or twit-twit.
Buzz, Chirp/Chip, Trill
Wave-washed rocks, jetties. In winter almost always on rocky shores or rock jetties and breakwaters, foraging in zone below high-tide mark. Sometimes in areas of seaweed washed up on beaches. In summer on barren northern tundra, especially in rocky areas or ridges.
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4, sometimes 3. Olive to buff, blotched with brown. Incubation is by both sexes (but male often does more), 21-22 days.
May leave nest within a few hours after hatching. Young are cared for mostly or entirely by male; from the beginning, young find their own food. Age at first flight not well known, probably about 3 weeks.
Clambers over rocks, seaweed, beaches, or tundra, looking for prey. Occasionally probes in mud, but usually finds food visually.
Mostly insects and mollusks. On breeding grounds eats mostly insects, also some crustaceans, spiders, worms. Unlike most sandpipers, also eats some plant material, including berries, buds, seeds, leaves, and moss. On migration and winter, diet is mostly small mollusks, including mussels and snails, also some crustaceans and insects.
In territorial display, male flies in wide circles with wings fluttered above horizontal. Displays to intruders on ground by raising one wing high above back. Male may pursue female on ground or in the air. Nest site is on ground on open tundra, either in high rocky area or lower wet site, often among lichen or moss. Nest is shallow depression, with or without lining of grass, leaves. Male makes up to 5 nest scrapes, female chooses one.
Numbers apparently stable or perhaps increasing. Breeding range is mostly remote from human impacts. Building of rock jetties along Atlantic Coast may have increased available wintering habitat.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Purple Sandpiper. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Purple Sandpiper
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.