Stilt sandpiper (Calidris himantopus)

Synonyms: Micropalama himantopus
GenusCalidris (1)
SizeLength: 18 - 23 cm (2)
Wingspan: 38 - 47 cm (2) (3)
Weight40 - 70 g (2) (3)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A slender, medium-sized wading bird with distinctively long, spindly legs, the stilt sandpiper is also readily recognised by its long neck and long, blackish beak, which is slightly down-curved and wider at the tip (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). During the breeding season, the dark upperparts of the body are heavily barred with reddish-brown and white, and the face bears a chestnut cheek patch below a white ‘eyebrow’ stripe. The rest of the body is barred greyish-brown and white, the rump is white, and the long legs are usually greenish, with slight webbing at the base of the front toes. The non-breeding plumage is much less distinctive, being brownish-grey above, white below, and greyish on the throat and chest, although the white eyebrow stripe remains conspicuous (2) (4) (5) (6) (7).

The female stilt sandpiper is usually slightly larger than the male (2), while juveniles are browner than the adult, with pale scaling on the back, a buffy, thinly-streaked neck and breast, white underparts and sometimes yellowish legs (2) (4) (5) (7). The calls of the stilt sandpiper include a quiet, scratchy kirrr or krrit (3) (4), a longer, scratchy song, usually given in flight, and a rhythmical, repeated urreee (3) (5).

The stilt sandpiper breeds in arctic and subarctic areas of North America, from northern Alaska east to James Bay, Canada, and migrates south to spend the winter mainly in inland central South America. Smaller numbers overwinter in scattered locations in the southern United States, Central America and the Caribbean (2) (3) (5) (6), and the species is also occasionally recorded outside of its normal range, in Europe, Japan, Taiwan, China and Australia (4) (5) (8).

This species breeds primarily in sedge tundra near water, often close to the wooded borders of taiga (2) (3) (5) (7). Although preferring to nest near to the coast, it may also nest further inland during years when snowmelt occurs late (3). In winter and during migration, the stilt sandpiper feeds mainly in freshwater or brackish marshes, flooded fields, shallow pools and ponds, and coastal lagoons. Mudflats and tidal flats are sometimes used, but more rarely than by most related species (2) (3) (5) (7).

The stilt sandpiper usually feeds alone or in small groups, often associating with other waders such as the lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) and dowitchers (Limnodromus species) (2) (3) (6). Individuals typically wade in belly-deep water, frequently with the head submerged, moving forward slowly and searching for prey by rapid probing with the beak, often described as a ‘sewing-machine’ action (2) (3) (5) (6). Prey may also be taken from the water’s surface or sometimes from dry land, and includes a variety of invertebrates, particularly adult and larval insects, as well as snails and also seeds (2) (3) (5).

The nest of the stilt sandpiper is an unlined scrape on the ground, usually located in relatively open, dry tundra, on a small hummock, gravel ridge or on flat ground. The species is monogamous and breeding pairs may reuse the same nest for more than one year (2) (5). Breeding usually takes place between early June to mid-July (2) (3). Four eggs are usually laid and are incubated by both the male and female, hatching after 19 to 21 days. The young sandpipers are well developed, leaving the nest soon after hatching, and are even able to cross pools and slow-flowing streams as the adults lead them to feeding areas. The chicks are able to feed themselves and are left by the adults after just one to two weeks. The female leaves earlier than the male, well before the young fledge at around 17 to 18 days old, and also departs the breeding grounds first, with the males leaving about a week later. Juveniles follow from around mid-August (2) (3) (5). Most immature birds are likely to spend the following summer in the wintering grounds (2) (3), not migrating north to breed until the second year (5).

The stilt sandpiper has a widespread distribution and large population, and is not currently considered at risk of extinction (8). The species is not known to face any major threats (2), although it may be affected by habitat loss and degradation in some areas. For example, overgrazing by geese opens up nesting habitat on the tundra, making eggs and chicks more vulnerable to predators, while substantial land use changes potentially affect the species’ wintering habitat in South America (5) (7).

There are no specific conservation measures currently known to be in place for the stilt sandpiper (5), although it is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention), which aims to protect migratory species throughout their range (9). Further research and survey work has been recommended, and the species may also benefit from investigations into the effects of land use changes on its wintering populations in South America (5).

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  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2010)
  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. O’Brien, M., Crossley, R. and Karlson, K. (2006) The Shorebird Guide. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  4. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  5. Klima, J. and Jehl Jr, J.R. (1998) Stilt sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  6. Hilty, S.L. and Brown, W.L. (1986) A Guide to the Birds of Colombia. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
  7. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology - All About Birds: Stilt Sandpiper (June, 2010)
  8. BirdLife International (June, 2010)
  9. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (June, 2010)