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Comparing the Behavior and Ecology of Least Sandpipers and Sanderlings

Shorebirds, with their diverse species and remarkable adaptations, inhabit some of the world’s most dynamic ecosystems.

Among these avian wonders, the Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) and the Sanderling (Calidris alba) stand out as distinct and captivating species, each with its own unique characteristics and ecological roles.

These small, migratory birds share a common pursuit of coastal habitats, yet they exhibit striking differences in plumage, behavior, feeding habits, and more.

In this exploration, we delve into the intricate details that set them apart, shedding light on their nesting habits, migration patterns, bill features, and social behaviors.

Together, these distinctions paint a vivid portrait of these remarkable shorebirds, showcasing their resilience and adaptability in the ever-changing world of coastal environments.

least sandpiper vs sanderling

Key Differences Between Least Sandpiper and Sanderling

Here are some of the main differences between least sandpiper and sanderling:


  • Least Sandpiper: The Least Sandpiper is notably smaller, measuring around 5.5 to 6.3 inches (14 to 16 centimeters) in length. Their diminutive size is a distinctive feature, making them one of the tiniest shorebirds. This small stature allows them to forage efficiently in mud and shallow waters along the shoreline.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings are comparatively larger, with a length of approximately 7.5 to 8.7 inches (19 to 22 centimeters). Their size is more substantial than that of Least Sandpipers and contributes to their ability to traverse sandy beaches while chasing waves.


  • Least Sandpiper: The plumage of the Least Sandpiper is characterized by a somewhat dingy appearance. They exhibit a streaked or mottled brownish-gray upper body with a distinctive streaked breast.
    This streaking pattern extends from the neck down to the belly. While their plumage may not be as striking as some other shorebirds, it provides effective camouflage in their preferred muddy and wetland habitats.
  • Sanderling: In contrast, Sanderlings boast a cleaner and more conspicuous plumage. They have a distinct light gray upper body, which lacks the streaking found in Least Sandpipers. The underparts of Sanderlings are predominantly white, creating a sharp contrast with the upper plumage.

Leg Color

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers have yellowish legs, which is a helpful characteristic for identification. These yellow legs are a noticeable contrast to their overall plumage and are particularly visible when they wade through shallow waters or mudflats. The yellow legs are a consistent feature among individuals of this species.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings are known for their dark leg color, typically black or dark gray. This is another distinguishing trait that sets them apart from the Least Sandpipers.
    These dark legs are especially conspicuous when Sanderlings are seen running along the shoreline, leaving clear tracks in the wet sand.

Overall Appearance

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers have an overall appearance that complements their preferred habitat.
    Their mottled brownish-gray plumage, streaked breast, and yellowish legs contribute to a subtle and earthy appearance. This understated camouflage helps them blend into the mud and wetlands where they often forage.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings present a more striking and contrasting overall appearance. Their clean white underparts combined with the light gray upper body create a stark visual contrast. This appearance makes them stand out on the sandy beaches they frequent during their foraging activities. The dark legs further enhance their distinctive look.

Foraging Behavior

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers exhibit a foraging behavior characterized by probing into mud, sand, and shallow waters. They use their relatively short, straight bills to search for small invertebrates buried beneath the substrate.
    Their foraging technique is methodical and involves pecking and probing, making them well-suited for their preferred muddy and wetland habitats.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings, in contrast, have a unique and highly active foraging behavior. They are often observed running along the shoreline, chasing the waves as they recede. They use their moderately long, slightly curved bills to capture prey items stirred up by the waves.

Bill Length

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers possess relatively short, straight bills that are well-suited for their foraging style. These bills allow them to probe into mud and sand to capture small invertebrates, such as insects and crustaceans, with precision.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have bills that are moderately long and slightly curved. Their bill shape facilitates their feeding strategy, as they use it to probe into the wet sand and pick prey from beneath the surface, particularly as they chase waves on sandy beaches.

Wing Length

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers have shorter wings in comparison to their body size. These wings are adapted for agile, low-level flight, which is useful for their migratory journeys between breeding and wintering grounds.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have longer wings relative to their size. These wings enable them to perform strong and swift flight, which is important for their long-distance migrations, often covering extensive distances between their Arctic breeding grounds and wintering areas.


  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers are widely distributed across North America. They can be found in various wetland habitats, including freshwater ponds, mudflats, and estuaries, during their migration and breeding seasons.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings are known for their impressive long-distance migrations. They breed in Arctic tundra regions and then embark on extensive journeys, traveling to coastal areas across North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa during their wintering season.


  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers produce a distinctive high-pitched “tsip” call, which is a key part of their vocal repertoire. This call is often heard during their breeding and migration periods and can help birdwatchers identify them by sound.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have a more varied vocalization range compared to Least Sandpipers. Their calls include a mix of soft whistles, chattering, and various other vocalizations, which they use for communication and coordination within their flocks during foraging and migration.

Breeding Grounds

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers typically breed in tundra and wetland habitats of North America. They construct cup-shaped nests on the ground, often concealed among vegetation, and lay their eggs in these nests.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings choose Arctic tundra regions as their breeding grounds. They create shallow depressions in the ground for nesting and lay their eggs in these depressions. The remote and harsh Arctic tundra provides a breeding environment suited to their needs.

Nesting Habits

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers exhibit ground-nesting habits, a common trait among shorebirds. They construct cup-shaped nests on the ground, often concealed among vegetation such as grasses and sedges.
    These nests provide some protection for their eggs from potential predators, although they remain vulnerable to threats on the open tundra.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings also engage in ground nesting, but their nesting habits differ from those of Least Sandpipers. Instead of constructing cup-shaped nests, Sanderlings create shallow depressions in the ground, often lined with bits of vegetation and other materials.
    This nesting style is minimalistic and relies on the natural camouflage of their eggs in the tundra environment.

Migration Patterns

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers are renowned for their remarkable long-distance migration. They breed in northern North America, including Canada and Alaska, and migrate south to spend the winter in various parts of North and Central America, as well as northern South America.
    These journeys can span thousands of miles and require considerable endurance.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings share the trait of long-distance migration with Least Sandpipers. They breed in Arctic tundra regions, primarily in the northern parts of North America, and undertake extensive migrations to reach their wintering grounds.
    Sanderlings are known to migrate along coastlines and are often spotted on sandy beaches during their winter months in regions across North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Bill Shape

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers have relatively short and straight bills. Their bill shape is well-suited for probing into mud and sand to capture small invertebrates. This straight bill allows for precise, efficient foraging by pecking and probing in the substrate of their preferred habitats.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings possess bills that are moderately long and slightly curved. Their bill shape is adapted for a different foraging strategy. Sanderlings use these bills to probe into the wet sand, especially as they chase waves on sandy beaches, to capture prey items hidden beneath the surface. The slight curve aids in extracting food from the sand.

Bill Color

  • Least Sandpiper: The bill of the Least Sandpiper is typically dark in color with a yellowish or greenish base. This combination of colors can vary somewhat among individuals but generally remains consistent within the species.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have distinctive black bills with an orange base. The contrasting colors of their bills make them easily identifiable, especially when foraging along the shoreline where their bill color stands out against the sandy backdrop.


  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers have relatively short, pointed tails. Their tail shape is adapted to their general foraging behavior, which involves probing into mud and shallow waters. The short tail allows for agility and ease of movement in their preferred habitats.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings exhibit a different tail shape with a longer, wedge-like appearance. This tail shape is advantageous for their unique foraging strategy on sandy beaches. As they chase waves and search for prey items in the wet sand, the longer tail provides stability and balance during rapid movements.

Primary Feeding Habitat

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers primarily feed in mudflats, wetlands, and the shallow waters along shorelines.
    Their short, straight bills are well-suited for probing into mud and sand to capture small invertebrates, including insects, crustaceans, and worms. These habitats provide a consistent source of food for them during migration and breeding.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings are often associated with sandy beaches and shorelines, where they primarily forage for food.
    Their unique foraging behavior involves chasing waves as they recede, using their moderately long, slightly curved bills to probe into the wet sand and capture prey items. This adaptation allows them to exploit the abundant food resources found in the intertidal zones.

Social Behavior

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers are often found in small groups or loose flocks, especially during migration and winter. While they may gather with other shorebirds, they tend to maintain a somewhat solitary foraging behavior and may not form large, tightly-knit flocks.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings are known for their gregarious nature. They frequently form larger flocks, sometimes numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, during migration and winter.
    This social behavior is particularly noticeable on sandy beaches, where they forage and roost together. Their synchronized movements can be captivating to observe.

Head Markings

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers often have distinctive head markings, including an eyeline and a pale supercilium (eyebrow stripe) extending above the eye. These markings can help in identifying them, especially in their non-breeding plumage.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings lack prominent head markings. Their heads are typically uniform in color, without the distinct eyeline or supercilium seen in Least Sandpipers. This contributes to their clean and unmarked appearance.

Winter Plumage

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers generally retain some of their streaking and mottling in their winter plumage, even though it may be somewhat subdued compared to their breeding plumage. Their winter plumage maintains the brownish-gray tones of their overall appearance.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings undergo a more dramatic transformation in their winter plumage. Their summer breeding plumage, which includes some reddish-brown tones on their head and neck, gives way to a predominantly white appearance in winter.
    Their winter plumage is characterized by white underparts and gray upperparts, with less conspicuous markings.

Leg Length

  • Least Sandpiper: Least Sandpipers have proportionally shorter legs compared to their body size. Their shorter legs are adapted for their foraging behavior in mudflats and wetlands, where they need stability and precision rather than speed.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have relatively longer legs in proportion to their body size. These longer legs are advantageous for their agile movements on sandy beaches, allowing them to swiftly chase waves and capture prey items. The leg length aids in their ability to traverse the dynamic shoreline habitat.

Least Sandpiper Vs Sanderling: Comparison Table

CharacteristicsLeast SandpiperSanderling
SizeSmaller, 5.5-6.3 inchesLarger, 7.5-8.7 inches
PlumageDingy, streaked breastClean, white underparts
Leg ColorYellowish legsDark legs (black or gray)
Overall AppearanceMottled brownish-grayLight gray upper body
Foraging BehaviorProbes into mud or sandRuns along shoreline, chases waves
Bill LengthShort, straight billModerately long, slightly curved bill
Wing LengthShorter wingspanLonger wingspan
RangeWidespread in North AmericaOften migrates long distances
VocalizationHigh-pitched “tsip” callsVarious calls and whistles
Breeding GroundsTundra and wetlandsArctic tundra regions
Nesting HabitsGround nesters, cup-shaped nestsGround nesters, shallow depressions
Migration PatternsLong-distance migratorsLong-distance migrators
Bill ShapeStraight, thin billSlightly curved, slender bill
Bill ColorDark with a yellowish baseBlack bill with orange base
TailShort, pointed tailLonger, wedge-shaped tail
Primary Feeding HabitatMudflats, wetlands, shorelinesSandy beaches, shorelines
Social BehaviorOften found in small groupsMay form larger flocks
Head MarkingsEyeline, pale superciliumNo distinct head markings
Winter PlumageSimilar to summer, retains some streakingWhite underparts, gray upperparts
Leg LengthProportionally shorter legsRelatively longer legs

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Least Sandpipers and Sanderlings have different nesting seasons?

Yes, they do. Both species typically nest during the summer in the Arctic tundra regions, but their nesting seasons may differ slightly depending on specific geographic locations within their breeding range.

Are Least Sandpipers and Sanderlings considered threatened or endangered species?

Neither species is currently considered threatened or endangered. Both Least Sandpipers and Sanderlings have stable populations, and they are not listed as conservation concerns at the global level.

What is the primary diet of Least Sandpipers and Sanderlings during migration?

Both species primarily feed on small invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, and worms during migration. They rely on these food sources in their various habitats, including mudflats, shorelines, and sandy beaches.

How do Least Sandpipers and Sanderlings cope with extreme temperatures in their Arctic breeding grounds?

They have various adaptations to survive in the harsh Arctic environment. These adaptations include nesting in concealed locations, having insulating plumage, and engaging in cooperative nesting behaviors that help protect their eggs from cold temperatures.

Do Least Sandpipers and Sanderlings engage in courtship displays during the breeding season?

Yes, both species exhibit courtship displays as part of their breeding rituals. These displays may involve aerial flights, vocalizations, and various movements to establish pair bonds and select suitable mates for breeding.

To Recap

The Least Sandpiper and the Sanderling, though similar in their shared coastal habitats and migratory journeys, reveal a world of contrasts and adaptations.

From their nuanced plumage and foraging strategies to their nesting habits and social behaviors, these shorebirds exemplify nature’s ability to diversify within common niches.

As we’ve explored their differences, we gain a deeper appreciation for their roles in the intricate web of coastal ecosystems.

The Least Sandpiper, with its subtle elegance, and the Sanderling, with its charismatic energy, remind us of the incredible diversity and resilience of life in our world’s ever-changing and interconnected environments.

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