At a Glance
Small and plain in appearance, this sandpiper is important in terms of sheer numbers. It often gathers by the thousands at stopover points during migration. Semipalmated Sandpipers winter mostly in South America, and studies have shown that they may make a non-stop flight of nearly 2000 miles from New England or eastern Canada to the South American coast. The name 'Semipalmated' refers to slight webbing between the toes, visible only at extremely close range.
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, Freshwater Wetlands, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Saltwater Wetlands, Tundra and Boreal Habitats
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Rapid Wingbeats, Running
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Migrates in flocks. May make very long nonstop flights between major feeding areas on migration. In fall, adults move south about a month before juveniles on average. One-year-old birds mostly stay on wintering grounds through first summer.
5 1/2-6 3/4" (14-17 cm). Small, plain. Short straight bill looks blunt at tip. Season for season, grayer (less brown) than Least Sandpiper, paler on the chest. Legs black or gray (not yellowish), but this is often hard to see. Western Sandpiper much more similar at times. Winter plumages almost identical; such birds in our area in winter are almost all Westerns.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Brown, Gray, White
Rounded, Short, Square-tipped, Wedge-shaped
Songs and Calls
A sharp cheh or churk, not as drawn out as the notes of the Least and Western sandpipers.
Buzz, Trill, Whistle
Beaches, mudflats; tundra in summer. During migration along coast found on mudflats in intertidal zone, shallow estuaries and inlets, beaches. Inland, occurs on edges of lakes and marshes next to very shallow water. Nests on low arctic tundra, near water.
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4, sometimes 3. Variable in color, whitish to olive-buff, blotched with brown and gray. Incubation is by both parents, usually 20 days.
Downy young leave nest within hours after hatching. Young are tended by both parents at first, but female usually deserts them within a few days. Male remains with young until they are about old enough to fly, but young feed themselves. Young can make short flights at about 2 weeks after hatching, can fly fairly well at 16-19 days, when not quite full-grown.
Forages mostly by walking on wet mud, looking for prey; sometimes probes in mud with bill. In coastal areas, does most feeding while tide is falling or at low tide. May forage at night.
Mostly tiny aquatic insects and crustaceans. Diet varies with season and place. In breeding season eats mostly insects, especially flies and their larvae, also some spiders, snails, seeds. During migration, feeds on a wide variety of small crustaceans that live in shallow water or wet mud, also many insects, small mollusks, worms.
Male defends territory with display flight, fluttering wings and singing a sputtering trill (sounds like a tiny outboard motor). Females are attracted by song; male and female may chase each other around territory. Nest site is on ground, often at top of low mound or on island, under small shrub. Nest is shallow depression lined with leaves, grass, moss. Male makes potential nest scrapes, female chooses one and adds nest material.
Still abundant, but has declined in recent years. Vulnerable because of heavy dependence on a few key stopover points in migration. Several special reserves have been established to protect this and other migratory shorebirds.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Semipalmated Sandpiper. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Semipalmated 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.