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New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide

Image of An adult spotted sandpiper.Zoom+ An adult spotted sandpiper. © Eric C. Reuter

Spotted sandpiper

Actitis macularius

Species Group: Bird

Conservation Status

State: Special Concern (Breeding)



The spotted sandpiper is a medium-sized shorebird that always appears to be leaning forward due to their rounded breast. They have a bill that is shorter in length than their heads. In breeding plumage, this sandpiper has bold, dark spots on a bright white chest. Their back is dark brown and their bill is bright orange. In their non-breeding plumage, the spotted sandpiper’s breast has no spots, their back is gray/brown, and their bill is pale yellow. Females have similar plumage to males; however their chest spots are larger and extend farther down their bellies. Juvenile plumage is similar to non-breeding adult plumage.

The spotted sandpiper’s most distinctive characteristic is their solitary, teetering walk. They continuously bob their tails up and down while foraging along shorelines. They can be commonly confused with the solitary sandpiper as well as the lesser yellowlegs. Their distinctive teetering is the main difference between the spotted and other species. Also, spotted sandpipers are by far the most widespread breeding population of shorebirds in North America.

Image of Range of the spotted sandpiper in New Jersey.Zoom+ Range of the spotted sandpiper in New Jersey.


The spotted sandpiper breeds all across North America, but they are considered a rare visitor to New Jersey. As recently as the 1930’s they were a frequent breeder in southern New Jersey, but they no longer breed in this area. Spotted sandpipers become scarce and very local along the southern edge of their breeding range in eastern North America (New Jersey). They spend their winters along the Gulf coasts of the United States and Mexico, the West Indies and Central America.

Spotted sandpipers prefer freshwater habitat such as marshes, lakes, and rivers. They do occur along beaches and sea coast although not as frequently as they occur in freshwater habitat. These sandpipers have been recorded at various altitudes as well. During breeding season, they seek a shoreline with openings for nests and patches of dense vegetation for chick cover. Spotted sandpipers spend their winters along beaches and mangroves as well as in rainforests and cloud forests.


Spotted sandpipers are active foragers – probing, picking and lunging at prey from the ground and air. They prefer small invertebrates and insects (midges, mayflies, flies, grasshoppers, beetles, worms, snails and small crustaceans). These visual feeders have also been observed consuming small fish and even picking at fish carcasses.


With most shorebird species, the males return to their breeding grounds first to set up territories in hopes of attracting a female. The spotted sandpiper is not like most shorebirds in that aspect. Each spring, spotted females return first! They precede the males by 4-5 days to set up territory. When the males arrive, the female spotted sandpiper performs elaborate courtship flights and ground displays to attract admiring males. Within a day, pair bonds are formed and nest scraping begins. Numerous scrapes are formed until a functional scrape is chosen to build a nest. Both adults will line the scrape with dead grass and small woody material. The nest is typically within 100 yards of the shoreline, under the shade of a plant.

The female lays a 3-5 egg clutch in late May and the male will primarily incubate the eggs for 19-22 days. After laying her eggs, it is possible that the female will abandon this nest and find another mate. Polyandry is a form of mating in which the female takes on two or more mates. Spotted sandpipers are well documented in this behavior. It is possible for females to have up to 4 mates in one breeding season. It is also possible that the female will choose to stay with her original nest and mate with no other males.

When the eggs hatch, the precocial young are out of the nest within hours. The male is their primary care-taker and the female stands guard for predators. At 18 days of age, the young are fledged. Juveniles migrate south in September after the adults and will return the following April to breed.


Currently, the spotted sandpiper is listed as a species of Special Concern in New Jersey. As previously mentioned, they were at one time a frequent visitor to New Jersey. It is possible that because New Jersey is at the south-eastern most edge of this sandpipers breeding territory, they are simply very rare visitors.

Development, loss of wetland habitat, and compromised water quality are some threats the spotted sandpiper is facing. However, they are still considered to be one of the most widespread species of shorebirds in North America.

Text written by Emily Heiser in 2011.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
       Class: Aves
          Order: Charadriiformes
             Family: Scolopacidae
                Genus: Actitis
                   Species: A. macularius

Find Related Info: Special concern

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