Sharp-tailed sandpiper (Calidris acuminata)

Also known as: Siberian pectoral sandpiper
Synonyms: Totanus acuminatus
French: Bécasseau à queue pointue
GenusCalidris (1)
SizeLength: 17 - 22 cm (2)
Wingspan: 36 - 43 cm (2)
Male weight: 53 - 114 g (2)
Female weight: 39 - 105 g (2)
Top facts

The sharp-tailed sandpiper is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A short-billed wader with a reddish-brown cap or crown (3), the sharp-tailed sandpiper (Calidris acuminata) is quite distinctive when in its full breeding plumage (4). This species has dark brown upperparts with chestnut and whitish buff fringes to the feathers (2), while its neck and buff-coloured breast are heavily streaked (2) (5). A characteristic feature of the sharp-tailed sandpiper is the presence of bold black streaks or chevrons on the underparts (2) (3) (4), which gradually fade towards the white belly (5). The sharp-tailed sandpiper has a black bill and brown eyes (3), which are accentuated by a pale, broad eyebrow (3) (4) (5). Its legs and feet are yellowish to green or brownish (2) (3), while its tail is mostly white with a black central section (3).

Non-breeding adult sharp-tailed sandpipers lack the warm colouration of the breeding plumage (2), and the upperparts and breast are generally more greyish (2) (4) (5), with faint streaks across the breast (2) (4). Male and female sharp-tailed sandpipers are similar in appearance, although the male is generally larger (2) (4) and is longer-billed than the female (4).

The feathers on the upperparts of the juvenile sharp-tailed sandpiper are blackish (4), with bright buff, chestnut and whitish fringes (2) (4). The juvenile sharp-tailed sandpiper’s white eyebrow contrasts strongly with its reddish-brown crown (2), creating a striking facial pattern (4). The breast is bright buff (2), lightly streaked in the centre, and more heavily streaked at the sides (4).

The call of the sharp-tailed sandpiper has been described as a relatively musical ‘trreep’ or ‘tree-reap’, which is uttered mostly when in flight (4). This species also produces a sharp, liquid twittering ‘whit-whit, whit-it-it’ and is known to grunt softly (3). 

The sharp-tailed sandpiper breeds in the northern regions of Siberia (2) (3) (6), but migrates south to winter in New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand (2) (3) (6), as well as New Caledonia and Tonga (2).

The sharp-tailed sandpiper is commonly seen on migration through China (3), and it is also known to visit North America, primarily in the autumn (4) (5). This species is classed as a very rare migrant in western Europe (5), and has been recorded in several countries as a vagrant bird, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Germany (7).

The sharp-tailed sandpiper generally occurs on the tundra of the Arctic and sub-Arctic (2) (5) (6), particularly moss-sedge bogs with drier, shrub-covered hummocks (2), as well as marshes, mudflats and swamps (3). During the non-breeding season, the sharp-tailed sandpiper is found on a wide variety of coastal and inland wetlands, including flooded grassland, river mouths and coastal salt marshes (2).

A highly migratory species (2) (5) (7), the sharp-tailed sandpiper leaves its Siberian breeding grounds between July and September (2), and travels south along the Pacific coast of Asia to Australia and New Zealand (2) (6). The majority of the sharp-tailed sandpiper population migrates to Australia, particularly the south-eastern region, and this species usually arrives in the country between August and November, leaving again between mid-February and early March. The northern migration to its breeding grounds is rather drawn out, with the sharp-tailed sandpiper completing the journey through a series of short flights (2).

The sharp-tailed sandpiper is a gregarious species, forming large flocks consisting of hundreds to thousands of individuals (2), and in China it has been recorded mixing freely with other wading birds (3). Large flocks often fragment into scattered groups while feeding (2).

Often feeding among vegetation in drier margins of its habitat, such as at the water’s edge (2), the sharp-tailed sandpiper generally forages by sight, opportunistically pecking at prey items when it sees them. However, this species also finds food by using its bill to probe into the ground with rapid, shallow movements (2) (5). The sharp-tailed sandpiper’s diet is highly variable, and includes insects and other invertebrates, such as bivalves, snails, and crustaceans. It is also known to eat seeds (2).

The sharp-tailed sandpiper is a polygynous species, with the male mating with more than one female in a breeding season (2) (8) (9). Although little is known about the breeding habits of this species (5), the male sharp-tailed sandpiper has been recorded performing a flight display as part of its courtship behaviour (2) (5). During this display, the male produces a characteristic and distinctive dry, crackling warble (2).

Egg laying in the sharp-tailed sandpiper occurs in early June. This species nests on the ground (5), with the eggs being laid in a well-hidden, shallow depression filled with leaves and grass. The female sharp-tailed sandpiper usually lays four eggs, or sometimes three (2), which are a relatively uniform brownish-olive colour and well camouflaged within the tundra habitat (9). Once the eggs have been laid, the male abandons the female, and the female is left to incubate the eggs and care for the young alone. Each female only produces one brood per breeding season (2).

There is little information on the lifespan of the sharp-tailed sandpiper, but the oldest ringed bird was known to be at least five years and nine months old (2).

The sharp-tailed sandpiper is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (2) (7), as it has a very large range and there is no evidence to indicate that it is facing any substantial threats (7). Changes to wetlands as a result of human activity are not considered to be a major problem for this species, as it is able to make use of a wide variety of wetland types (2).

The sharp-tailed sandpiper has a very large range and a large population size, and so is not currently considered to be a threatened species (7). However, suitable management of coastal and inland wetlands in south-eastern Australia, where most of the world population of sharp-tailed sandpipers winters, is deemed to be essential for the survival of this species, as this region has a high human population density (2).

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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2012)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. MacKinnon, J. and Phillipps, K. (2000) A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Kaufman, K. (1999) A Peterson Field Guide to Advanced Birding: Birding Challenges and How to Approach Them. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  5. MobileReference (2009) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of North American Birds: An Essential Guide to Common Birds of North America. MobileReference, Boston.
  6. Campbell, R.W., Dawe, N.K., McTaggart-Cowan, I., Cooper, J.M., Kaiser, G.W. and McNall, M.C.E. (1997) Nonpasserines: Diurnal Birds of Prey Through Woodpeckers. Volume 2 of The Birds of British Columbia. University of British Columbia Press, British Columbia.
  7. BirdLife International (September, 2012)
  8. Thompson, D.B.A. (2001) Shorebirds. Voyageur Press, Minneapolis.
  9. Geering, A., Agnew, L. and Harding, S. (2007) Shorebirds of Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.