Identification of Wandering Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper

Identification of Wandering Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper
Wandering talkerWandering talker, non-breeding adult. August in Ventura County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

The Wandering Tattler’s name sounds whimsical and fictional, but it’s actually an apt title. “Wandering” is no exaggeration. The coastal wintering range of this sandpiper extends across the Pacific, from California and Ecuador to Australia, and just about every archipelago and island in between: Hawaii, Galapagos, Polynesia, Samoa , Fiji, etc. “Tattler” is also appropriate: when this unassuming bird flies off a wave-washed rock, its loud, resounding trill ensures that everyone will know.

In terms of habitat and environment, the Wandering Knight leads a double life. Most birders see it outside the breeding season, along the coast on rocky shores. For breeding, however, it travels to interior Alaska and parts of northwestern Canada and far eastern Siberia, nesting near streams in the mountains. The first nest was not discovered until 1923, in the area that is now Denali National Park in central Alaska, and its breeding behavior has still not been thoroughly studied. .

Curiously, this change of scenery—rocky shores in winter, Alaskan mountains in summer—is also practiced by another sandpiper, the Surfbird, although it clings to the coasts of the Americas instead of crossing to the other side of the Peaceful.

For North American birders, the Wandering Tattler is essentially a Pacific Coast specialty. A handful of strays have appeared east of the Texas coast, Hudson Bay, the Great Lakes, and even Massachusetts, so this is a species every birder should keep in mind. Along the California coast, the bird is present most of the year, with highest numbers in late April and early May, and then late July through September. Only small numbers remain through the winter, and very few are found in early summer.

In this coastal range, the wandering sandpiper is rarely seen foraging on mudflats or sandy beaches, as it is strongly tied to rocky shores. It is typical to see one moving quickly over wet rocks near breaking waves, preying on invertebrates and occasionally chasing small crabs. As it moves, the talker “wobbles”, causing its hindquarters or whole body to move up and down, similar to the actions of a Spotted Sandpiper. Often, the chatterbox forages in the same general areas as flocks of Black Turnstones and Surfbirds, but does not join the flocks. It remains alone, and if the birds are flushed, the chatterbox will fly away separately with a loud, resounding cry.


Compared to other Pacific coast “sandpipers”, the babbler has a significantly longer bill than the turnstones or surfbird, a smoother gray above than the rocky sandpiper, and more active in its search for food than any of these birds. Its behavior makes it superficially more similar to the Pectoral Sandpiper, which may also forage along rocky shores outside the breeding season. See the text accompanying the beautiful photos by Brian Small in this column for directions on how to identify wandering Tattlers in all plumages.

What to look for

The size and the shape. Medium-sized sandpiper with fairly short legs and a thin, straight bill.
Face pattern. Thick dark line across lores (bill to eye) with ill-defined pale supralora line (short supercilium) above.
Pattern of the lower parts. Breeding adult heavily barred gray and white. Juvenile and winter adult with gray breast and sides, white belly.
Habitat and behavior. Favors rocky ocean shores for most of the year. Actively walks on the rocks, waving the hindquarters up and down.
Flight model. Entirely gray above, with no white on wings, rump or tail, unlike most shorebirds.

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Wandering talkerWandering Sandpiper, breeding adult. May in Lost Angeles County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

Among frequent shorebirds in North America, the pattern of the wandering sandpiper in breeding plumage is unique. Nothing else comes close to its pattern of heavily barred underparts and completely smooth, unmarked gray upperparts. Even with this distinctive pattern, however, the shape of the bird is a major land mark, as with all shorebirds. Note the overall horizontal appearance, with relatively long wings and short, stubby legs, and the straight beak, significantly longer than the head. This may seem like an easy identification. But especially in Alaska, birdwatchers should be aware of a close relative, the Grey-tailed Tattler, which comes from Asia; it is discussed in the sidebar on the next page.

Wandering talkerKnight-errant, juvenile. September in Los Angeles County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

As with most other sandpipers, late summer and fall juveniles differ from adults in the appearance of the upperparts. Their cleaner appearance partly results from the fact that the main scapular and covert feathers are more uniform in shape and slightly smaller than those of adults. Additionally, the juvenile chatterbox has a pattern of fine pale spots along the edges and tips of most coverts, as well as pale spots along the edges of the tertials, while these feathers are simply solid gray in adults. From afar, this subtle pattern is hard to see, and the juvenile simply looks plain and grey, well camouflaged from the usual colors of coastal rocks.

spotted sandpiperPectoral Sandpiper, non-breeding adult. January in San Diego County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

In the field, ID’s main competitor with the Wandering Sandpiper is the Spotted Sandpiper in winter plumage. Its walking behavior – rocking the rear part of the body up and down – is strikingly similar. Both birds have mostly plain upperparts, fairly short yellow legs, and a similar face pattern. The overall color tone differs: the sandpiper looks more brown and the talker wears more gray tones, but this can be difficult to judge in the harsh light along an open shore. In the Eastern Sandpiper, a white mark extending in front of the wing is usually a good ground mark. In flight, it has a conspicuous white wing stripe, a clear distinction from the unmarked gray wings of the babbler.

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Wandering talkerWandering Sandpiper, non-breeding adult. August in Ventura County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

Its total breeding range is small and its population is estimated at less than 25,000, but the Wandering Sandpiper’s winter range is very thinly distributed across the edges and islands of the vast Pacific Ocean. Most Rocky Shore Sandpipers (including Black Turnstone, Ruddy Turnstone, Surfbird, and Rock Sandpiper) are regularly seen in groups, but Wandering Tattlers are usually seen alone. A solitary gray bird foraging among the gray rocks is easy to overlook. Often we notice the chatterbox first when it takes flight, with loud cries. Its flight pattern – solid gray above, with no white on the wings, rump or tail – is quite distinct from other shorebirds that share the same habitat.

The other talker

The Wandering Sandpiper may seem unique among North American sandpipers, but it has a close relative, the Grey-tailed Sandpiper. It breeds in Siberia and appears regularly as a migrant to the western Alaskan islands, occasionally to the mainland, and very rarely south to Alaska.

Grey-tailed and wandering babblers are similar in all plumages, not always safely identifiable by sight. The gray tail tends to be a paler gray above. In breeding plumage, the bars on its underparts are less extensive, leaving part of the belly white, but a moulting Wanderer may resemble it. Grey-tailed juvenile has slightly larger white spots on edges of scapulars, coverts and tertials. Birds with winter plumage are generally whiter on the flanks, not heavily washed gray as in the Wandering Sandpiper. In all plumages, the gray tail’s pale supercilium tends to be broader.


Additionally, the Grey-tailed Sandpiper has less affinity for rocky locations and is more likely to forage in open mudflats or sandy areas. Perhaps reflecting this difference, Wandering Tattler has subtly thicker legs, which could be an adaptation for climbing over rough surfaces.

To identify an out-of-range talker, however, it would be important to hear the voice. Wandering Tattler gives an undulating series of clear, sibilant notes in quick succession, you-you-you-you-you. The call of the gray tail is an ascending hiss cry too much, a completely different sound, belying the species’ similar appearance.