Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria)

French: Chevalier solitaire
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderCharadriiformes
FamilyScolopacidae
GenusTringa (1)
SizeLength: 19 - 23 cm (2)
Weight31 - 65 g (2)

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

A little-studied migratory shorebird of the Scolopacidae family, the solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) has a fairly distinctive appearance and a number of unusual, distinguishing behaviours. Of the world’s 85 sandpiper species, the solitary sandpiper is one of only two species which nests in trees rather than on the ground (2) (3). The solitary sandpiper is also aptly named, as, in contrast with other migratory sandpipers, it does not form flocks. In fact, this species’ specific name, solitaria, refers to its unusual solitary behaviour during migration (3).

The solitary sandpiper is a small, slender, long-legged species (3) (4), with dark olive-brown or grey-brown upperparts which are scattered with fine, whitish-buff to cinnamon-white spots (3) (5). It has a distinctive narrow white eye-ring and a grey, streaked head (3) (4) (6), while the white throat and belly contrast with the dark underwings, particularly during flight. The bill of the solitary sandpiper is greyish with a black tip, and the legs are dull green (3) (4). There is usually a dusky or speckled streak from the base of the bill to the eye, with a whitish streak above the first (5). The outer tail feathers of the solitary sandpiper are dark and have distinctive black bars, while the rest of the tail is dark (2) (4).

The male and female solitary sandpiper are very similar in appearance, although the female is generally slightly larger than the male. The juvenile is usually warmer brown on the upperparts than the adult, with large, pale spots (3).

Two subspecies of the solitary sandpiper are recognised: Tringa solitaria solitaria has dark olive upperparts with buff-white spots, while Tringa solitaria cinnamomea is larger, with grey-olive plumage and cinnamon-white spots. Tringa solitaria solitaria usually has a more well-defined streak between the eye and the bill, while Tringa solitaria cinnamomea typically lacks these streaks, being more finely spotted and speckled instead (3) (5). 

 The call of the solitary sandpiper is a shrill, high pitched, whistled ‘weet, weet’ (2).

The solitary sandpiper is a migratory species, breeding in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska and migrating south through the United States to winter in northern Mexico and most of South America (3) (6) (7).

During the breeding season, the solitary sandpiper inhabits boreal forest and taiga (2) (3) (8), typically close to freshwater lakes, ponds or muskeg bogs (3) (6). Unlike most shorebirds, the solitary sandpiper frequently occurs in muddy habitats, such as drainage ditches and the edges of wooded swamps (3) (6) (7). 

On its wintering grounds, the solitary sandpiper will inhabit freshwater wetlands, small pools, streams and rivers, marshes, flooded ditches, rice fields and small lakes surrounded by shrubby vegetation. This species may sometimes occur around brackish waters, although it is rarely seen in tidal areas, on coastal flats or mudflats, or on open marshes (2) (3) (8).

The solitary sandpiper forages in shallow water or mud around the edges of pools. It feeds mainly on aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, including dragonfly nymphs and water boatmen, as well as other insects and insect larvae, spiders, worms, tadpoles, small frogs, small crustaceans and molluscs. The solitary sandpiper frequently wades into water up to its belly to stir up vegetation, snatching at any prey it encounters (3) (7) (9).

Unusually for a shorebird, the solitary sandpiper nests in trees rather than on the ground. Generally, this species will find an old, abandoned songbird nest around a muskeg bog or woodland pool in which to lay its eggs. The nests are usually found among the branches of coniferous trees or on tree stumps, up to 200 metres from water and up to 13 metres off the ground (2) (3) (6) (9). The male solitary sandpiper usually chooses the nest, while the female will rearrange the nest lining by scraping, pulling and throwing material until it is suitably arranged (3) (6).

Breeding and egg-laying begins around late May or early June in Alberta, around mid-June in British Columbia and in late June in Ontario (3) (8). The female solitary sandpiper produces only one brood each season (3), laying between three and five eggs which are pale green or buff with reddish-brown or purple blotches (2) (3) (7) (8). Although the length of the incubation period is relatively unstudied, it is thought to last for around 23 or 24 days, with both the male and female taking turns to incubate the eggs (3) (6). The young solitary sandpiper chicks are able to leave the nest soon after hatching (3).

Unlike most wading birds, the solitary sandpiper does not migrate in flocks (7) (9). This species leaves the breeding areas in July, migrating south to reach South America in early August. The solitary sandpiper remains on its wintering grounds until early April the following year (8).

The solitary sandpiper is poorly known compared to most other American shorebirds. As this species often nests in rather inaccessible locations (3) (9), it appears not to have been affected by hunting on its breeding grounds. Similarly, as the solitary sandpiper tends not to aggregate in large groups during migration, there seems to have been relatively little impact on the population from hunting as this species moves to and from its wintering grounds (3).

Although much of the solitary sandpiper’s breeding habitat currently remains intact, cutting of boreal forest is becoming an increasing threat in some areas. In Mexico, a significant number of solitary sandpipers winter around Lake Texcoco, which is currently threatened by airport development (3).

There are currently no known conservation measures in place which specifically target the solitary sandpiper. Very little is known about the biology of this species, and its remote breeding habitat and somewhat inaccessible nest sites means that its breeding biology in particular has been poorly studied (3).

The solitary sandpiper would greatly benefit from further studies into its biology, especially in relation to breeding, as well as into its migratory movements and wintering ecology (3). Furthermore, information on the dependence of the solitary sandpiper on nests constructed by passerines should be assessed, particularly in relation to the impacts that declining rusty blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) and nest availability may have on this species. Any additional potential threats to the solitary sandpiper should also be identified (8).

Find out more about the solitary sandpiper:

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:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Solitary sandpiper (September, 2011)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Solitary_Sandpiper/lifehistory
  3. Moskoff, W. (2011) Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/156
  4. U.S. Geological Survey - Solitary sandpiper (September, 2011)
    http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i2560id.html
  5. Conover, B. (1944) The races of the solitary sandpiper. The Auk, 61(4): 537-544.
  6. Avibirds European Birdguide Online - Solitary sandpiper (September, 2011)
    http://www.avibirds.com/euhtml/Solitary_Sandpiper.html
  7. eNature - Solitary sandpiper (September, 2011)
    http://www.enature.com/fieldguides/detail.asp?recnum=BD0237
  8. NatureServe Explorer - Solitary sandpiper (September, 2011)
    http://www.natureserve.org/explorer/
  9. Oring, L.W. (1973) Solitary sandpiper early reproductive behaviour. The Auk, 90(3): 652-663.