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Plumage, Size, and Shape: Differentiating Between Western Sandpipers and Sanderlings in Coastal Environments

Shorebirds, those captivating denizens of coastal habitats, embody nature’s elegant adaptability to life on the edge.

Among these avian marvels, the Western Sandpiper and Sanderling stand as charismatic representatives, sharing common coastal domains while sporting distinct features and behaviors.

In this exploration, we delve into the nuanced tapestry that distinguishes these two small yet remarkable shorebirds.

From their subtle differences in plumage and bill shape to their contrasting feeding styles and global ranges, we navigate through the intricate web of traits that set them apart.

As we embark on this ornithological journey, we unravel the fascinating stories of Western Sandpipers and Sanderlings, celebrating the biodiversity and wonders of our coastal ecosystems.

western sandpiper vs sanderling

Key Differences Between Western Sandpiper and Sanderling

There are several key differences between western sandpiper and sanderling:


  • Western Sandpiper: The Western Sandpiper is a diminutive shorebird, measuring approximately 6 to 7 inches (15-18 centimeters) in length. This small size is one of its defining characteristics.
    Their compact build and relatively short legs contribute to their petite stature. This size adaptation allows them to efficiently forage in the muddy and sandy substrates of their coastal habitats.
  • Sanderling: In contrast, the Sanderling is relatively larger among shorebirds, with an average length of about 7.5 to 8.5 inches (19-22 centimeters). This greater size, compared to the Western Sandpiper, is immediately noticeable when observing these birds.
    Sanderlings have a slightly more robust build, longer legs, and a larger overall presence, making them stand out in coastal environments.

Wing Stripe

  • Western Sandpiper: The Western Sandpiper possesses a distinctive but relatively subtle wing stripe. This pale wing stripe is a field mark that helps identify the species.
    The stripe runs along the edge of its wings but is not as bold or conspicuous as that of the Sanderling. It appears as a thin, faint line on the upper side of the wings.
  • Sanderling: The Sanderling, on the other hand, boasts a bold and conspicuous white wing stripe that is instantly recognizable. This striking feature extends along the length of its wings, making it one of the most distinguishing field marks for this species.


  • Western Sandpiper: The Western Sandpiper displays a mottled brownish-gray upper plumage that provides effective camouflage in its coastal habitats.
    Its upper parts are marked with varying shades of brown and gray, which help it blend into the mud and sand flats where it often forages. In contrast, its underparts, including the belly, are primarily white.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings exhibit a striking contrast in their plumage as well but with a different coloration pattern. Their upperparts are darker, with grayish-brown hues, while their underparts are predominantly pale grayish-white.
    This sharp contrast between the upper and lower plumage, combined with the bold white wing stripe, gives the Sanderling a distinct appearance.

Bill and Legs

  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers have bills that are slightly curved, which is a feature typical of many sandpipers. Their bills are not black but have a more subdued coloration. Similarly, their legs are not black but match the color of their bills, blending in with their overall appearance.
  • Sanderling: One of the most noticeable differences between Western Sandpipers and Sanderlings is the coloration of their bills and legs. Sanderlings have striking black bills and legs, which contrast starkly with their pale plumage.
    This black bill and leg coloration is a key identifying feature and helps set them apart from other shorebirds in their coastal habitats.


  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers are known for their feeding behavior, which involves rapid and constant probing of the mud or sand for small invertebrates.
    They use their slightly curved bills to pick out prey from the substrate, displaying a somewhat mechanical and methodical feeding style.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings are renowned for their distinctive “wave chasing” behavior. When foraging on sandy beaches, they run in and out with the waves, hunting for food as the waves recede. This dynamic and energetic feeding behavior is a stark contrast to the more stationary probing of Western Sandpipers.

Belly Color

  • Western Sandpiper: The belly of the Western Sandpiper is primarily white, creating a stark contrast with its mottled brownish-gray upper parts.
    This white underbelly is a useful field mark for distinguishing this species, especially when it is seen foraging in its characteristic manner along coastal mudflats.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings, in contrast, have a predominantly pale grayish-white underbelly. These light-colored underparts extend from their throat down to their belly and under their wings, creating a clean, monochromatic appearance on the lower half of their body.


  • Western Sandpiper: The upper parts of the Western Sandpiper are characterized by a mottled pattern of brownish-gray hues. This mottling helps them blend seamlessly into their muddy and sandy habitats.
    Their upper feathers are marked with varying shades of brown and gray, offering them camouflage from predators while foraging.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have darker upperparts compared to Western Sandpipers. Their upper feathers are grayish-brown, providing another contrast to the Western Sandpiper’s plumage. This darker coloring, combined with their bold white wing stripe, makes Sanderlings distinctive and easily recognizable.

Habitat Preference

  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers are commonly found in mudflats and coastal areas, often foraging in areas with exposed mud or sand. They prefer habitats where they can probe for small invertebrates in the substrate. During migration, they can also be spotted in a variety of wetland habitats.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have a preference for sandy beaches along coastlines. Their “wave chasing” behavior involves running in and out with the waves to feed on prey, particularly in the intertidal zones of sandy beaches. While they also migrate, their coastal habitat choice is a distinct characteristic.

Bill Length

  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers have relatively shorter bills compared to Sanderlings. Their bills are adapted for probing into mud and sand to extract small invertebrates. This shorter bill length suits their feeding behavior and the types of prey they target.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings possess longer bills, which are well-suited for picking food from the sand and surf. Their bill length helps them reach deep into the sand to capture prey as they chase the receding waves along the shoreline.

Neck Length

  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers have relatively longer necks compared to Sanderlings. This feature contributes to their appearance and posture while foraging. Their longer necks enable them to reach down and probe deeper into the substrate in search of prey.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have shorter necks in comparison to Western Sandpipers. This characteristic, combined with their energetic “wave chasing” behavior, gives them a distinctive look as they dart back and forth along the shoreline, with their heads often bobbing up and down.

Bill Shape

  • Western Sandpiper: The bill of the Western Sandpiper is slightly curved and slender. This curved bill is well-suited for probing into mud and sand to extract small invertebrates, which is a common feeding behavior among sandpipers. The curvature of their bill allows for precise and efficient foraging in their preferred habitats.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have a straight and relatively stout bill. This straight bill shape is ideal for their “wave chasing” feeding behavior on sandy beaches. It helps them quickly snap up prey items from the sand and surf as they move rapidly along the shoreline.

Tail Length

  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers have relatively shorter tails. Their tail feathers do not extend far beyond the tips of their wings. This tail length is adapted to their agile foraging style in mud and sand, which doesn’t require long tails for balance.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have notably longer tails, extending beyond the wingtips when in flight or at rest. This longer tail can aid in balance and stability as they run along the shoreline, particularly when navigating the ebb and flow of waves during their feeding behavior.

Feeding Style

  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers are known for their methodical probing behavior. They probe into the substrate, using their slightly curved bills, to search for and extract small invertebrates such as tiny crustaceans and insects. This feeding style involves slow and deliberate movements.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have a more dynamic and energetic feeding style known as “wave chasing.” They run in and out with the waves along sandy beaches, quickly snapping up prey items as the waves recede. This behavior is fast-paced and characterized by rapid movement.

Migratory Patterns

  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers are long-distance migrants, with their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra of North America.
    They undertake extensive migrations, flying south to their wintering grounds along the coasts of North and South America. They are a common sight during migration stopovers at various wetland habitats.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings are also long-distance migrants, breeding in the Arctic and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
    During migration, they have a global distribution, with some individuals traveling incredible distances to reach their wintering grounds. They can be found along coastlines in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.


  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers emit high-pitched, trill-like calls during their flights and while foraging. These calls are often heard when they are in the company of other shorebirds and are used for communication and coordination within flocks.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings produce soft, whistling calls that are distinct from the calls of Western Sandpipers. These calls are usually heard during their feeding activities along the shoreline. They are not as vocal as some other shorebird species but may emit these calls as part of their social interactions and foraging behavior.


  • Western Sandpiper: The Western Sandpiper has a range primarily concentrated in the Americas. They breed in the Arctic tundra of North America and migrate along the western coast of North and South America.
    During their non-breeding season, they can be found in various coastal and wetland habitats throughout North, Central, and South America.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings have a more extensive global range. They breed in the Arctic and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere, including North America, Europe, and Asia. During migration and winter, they can be found along coastlines worldwide, making them one of the most widely distributed shorebirds.

Breeding Grounds

  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers choose breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra of North America, including Alaska and parts of northern Canada. They nest in this remote and harsh environment, utilizing the short summer season to raise their young.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings also breed in the Arctic and subarctic regions, with their breeding range spanning across North America, Europe, and Asia. They nest on Arctic beaches and tundra, often in close proximity to water.

Breeding Plumage

  • Western Sandpiper: During the breeding season, Western Sandpipers undergo a transformation in plumage. Their breeding plumage includes rusty-red and black markings on their upperparts. This distinctive coloring is a temporary change for the purpose of courtship and breeding displays.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings also exhibit a change in plumage during the breeding season. They acquire darker plumage with red-brown edges on their feathers, enhancing their appearance for breeding purposes. This breeding plumage contrasts with their non-breeding appearance.

Winter Plumage

  • Western Sandpiper: In their winter plumage, Western Sandpipers have grayish-brown upper parts and a predominantly white underbelly. This plumage helps them blend into the sandy and muddy coastal habitats where they spend the non-breeding season.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings transition to a paler, more uniform grayish-white plumage during the winter months. Their winter plumage is characterized by a lack of the red-brown markings seen in their breeding plumage.

Social Behavior

  • Western Sandpiper: Western Sandpipers are often observed in small to medium-sized flocks, especially during migration and in winter. They can be social birds, coordinating their foraging activities within these groups.
    However, they are not known for forming the large, densely packed flocks seen in some other shorebird species.
  • Sanderling: Sanderlings are highly social birds and are frequently found in groups ranging from small to large flocks.
    This social behavior is particularly noticeable during their “wave chasing” feeding activity, where they move collectively along the shoreline, exploiting the opportunities presented by receding waves.

Western Sandpiper Vs Sanderling: Comparison Table

CharacteristicWestern SandpiperSanderling
SizeSmaller (6-7 inches)Larger (7.5-8.5 inches)
Wing StripeThin, pale wing stripeBold, conspicuous white wing stripe
PlumageMottled brownish-gray upperpartsPale grayish-white underparts
Bill and LegsSlightly curved bill, legs not blackBlack bill and legs
BehaviorRapid, constant probingWave chasing behavior
Belly ColorWhitePale grayish-white
UpperpartsBrownish-grayDarker upperparts
Habitat PreferenceMudflats, coastal areasSandy beaches, coastal areas
Bill LengthShorterLonger
Neck LengthLongerShorter
Bill ShapeSlightly curvedStraight
Tail LengthRelatively shorterLonger
Feeding StyleProbing for invertebratesRunning with waves
Migratory PatternsLong-distance migrantsLong-distance migrants
VocalizationHigh-pitched, trill-like callsSoft, whistling calls
RangeWidespread in North and South AmericaGlobal distribution
Breeding GroundsArctic tundraArctic tundra
Breeding PlumageRusty-red and black markingsDarker plumage with red-brown edges
Winter PlumageGrayish-brown with white underpartsPale grayish-white underparts
Social BehaviorOften seen in small flocksOften seen in small to large flocks

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Western Sandpipers and Sanderlings endangered species?

As of my last knowledge update in September 2021, neither Western Sandpipers nor Sanderlings are considered endangered species. Both are relatively common shorebird species with stable populations.

Do Western Sandpipers and Sanderlings hybridize?

While Western Sandpipers and Sanderlings are closely related species, they typically do not hybridize in the wild. Hybridization between closely related shorebird species is rare, as they have distinct mating preferences and behaviors.

How can I attract Western Sandpipers or Sanderlings to my backyard if I live near a coastal area?

Attracting these shorebirds to your backyard may be challenging, as they are primarily coastal birds. However, providing a habitat that mimics their natural feeding grounds can help. Create a sandy or muddy area near water, offer a variety of small invertebrates as food (such as mealworms), and provide freshwater sources for drinking and bathing.

Are Western Sandpipers and Sanderlings affected by climate change?

Both Western Sandpipers and Sanderlings are potentially affected by climate change, as it can alter their breeding and migration patterns by affecting temperature and food availability in their Arctic breeding grounds.

What is the primary conservation concern for Western Sandpipers and Sanderlings?

The primary conservation concern for these shorebirds is the loss and degradation of their critical coastal habitats due to human development, pollution, and climate change. Preserving and protecting their breeding and wintering grounds is crucial for ensuring their long-term survival.

To Recap

The Western Sandpiper and Sanderling, though belonging to the same shorebird family, showcase nature’s penchant for diversity and specialization.

Their differences in size, plumage, bill structure, and behavior have enabled them to carve unique niches within the dynamic coastal landscapes they inhabit.

Whether it’s the Western Sandpiper’s methodical probing in the mud or the Sanderling’s exhilarating wave-chasing antics, each species has adapted ingeniously to its environment.

These birds serve as reminders of the delicate balance in our ecosystems and the importance of preserving their habitats.

By appreciating and protecting the Western Sandpiper and Sanderling, we contribute to the conservation of these remarkable species and the fragile coastal ecosystems they call home.

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