Sandpipers, Phalaropes


The Long-billed Dowitcher is very close in appearance to the Short-billed Dowitcher. The length of the female Short-billed Dowitcher is the same as Long-billed male. The belly of the Long-billed is typically reddish the full length and Short-billed often has some white on it.

Dowitcher (Short-billed)

The Short-billed Dowitcher is very close in appearance to the Long-billed Dowitcher and name is misleading since the beak is longer than most shore birds. Short-billed Dowitchers  prefer saltwater locations, while Long-billed Dowitchers prefer fresh water.


This small wader provides another common sighting for the sandy beaches on both sides of Vancouver Island and is one of the most abundant shorebirds in North America. An adult dunlin in breeding plumage displays a distinctive black belly.  The winter dunlin is mostly grey above and white below. Juveniles are brown above with two whitish “V” shapes on the back. Adult breeders usually have black marks on the flanks or belly and show a strong white wingbar in flight.

The care of the young is mostly provided by the male since the female often leaves the breeding area and desserts the brood. Dunlin are different from most Calindrines in that they don’t travel as far south in the winter and stay longer in the northern regions and the juveniles migrate with adults .The are most abundant from September to April.

Godwit (Hudsonian)

The Hudsonian Godwit is one of the least known shorebirds in North America and is mostly seen in central Canada, however you may see them on the east side of Vancouver Island. It can winter as far south as Chile and spends its breeding time in Alaska, Northwest Territories and northwestern British Columbia. The Hudsonian Godwit has a  long reddish beak and dark tip like the Marbled Godwit. The female’s beak is slightly longer than the male’s beak helping identify differences between the sexes. It can be seen on mudflats, sandy beaches and in lagoons.

Godwit (Marbled)

The Marbled Godwit breeds from the Alaskan peninsula to James Bay, Ontario. They winter along coastal regions of North America. The Marbled Godwit has a similar beak to the Hudsonian Godwit in colour but the Marbled Godwit’s is slightly longer. Godwits are quite a bit larger than other shorebirds helping identify them quickly.

Phalarope (Red-Necked)

The Red-Necked Phalarope has quite a few colour patterns depending on the age and season. The female Phalarope while breeding is predominantly dark grey with a chestnut neck and upper breast and a black face with a white throat. The females have a white stripe just around the neck area which helps distinguish this bird from the Wilson’s Phalarope. The breeding male is a slightly less sharp version of the female. Young Red-Necked birds have a black patch through the eye and are mostly grey and brown. In winter the black eye patch is there and the colouring is grey above and white below. The Red-Necked Phalarope has a call that has been described as a whit or twit.


Sandlerlings do not have similar markings to other sandpipers and are easy to distinguish. Sanderlings prefer the sandy beaches of the west coast over mudflats and are common sightings on beaches in the Pacific Rim. They can feed at night and can be seen foraging for food when the moon is out. The winter bird is pale and can look almost white from a distance. Though they migrate like the rest of the sandpipers, they are the most abundant sandpiper seen during the winter.

Sandpipers (Baird’s)

Baird’s Sandpipers are very similar to the Western Sandpiper but can be distinguished by their long wings that extend beyond the tail when the bird is not in flight. Adults have black legs and a straight, thin dark bill. They are black and brown on top with white tips around some of their feathers and mainly white underneath. Baird’s Sandpipers undertake one of the longest annual migration of any bird flying from the Arctic every year as far south as Tierra del Fuego (almost Antartica) and back again. They begin spring migration through Vancouver Island on the way to the Arctic as early as mid April until late May and they return August and September along the west coast. Most sightings will be in summer months on Vancouver Island’s west coast.

Sandpiper (Least)

Least Sandpipers breed in the Arctic and head as far south as Central South America. They are mostly seen around Witty’s Lagoon close to Victoria and Long Beach in the Pacific Rim. Least Sandpipers can be easily identified by their crouched position while feeding and are often seen with other Sandpipers.

Sandpiper (Semi-palmated)

The Semipalmated Sandpiper gets its name from the slight webbing at the base of its toes.

Adults have black legs and a dark bill like the Bairds and Western Sandpiper. The body is dark grey-brown on top and white underneath. In flight, the Semipalmated Sandpiper displays a white stripe running down its wings and white on either side of its tail. In the late summer when we are most likely to see them on Vancouver Island, the juvenile’s legs may be olive-colored. Adults may be hard to separate from Baird’s and Western Sandpipers. Their migratory pattern is similar to other sandpipers and you will see them from April to October with the highest numbers in July and August. They are often mixed in with Western Sandpipers and like the tidal mudflats around Victoria and Tofino.

Sandpiper (Solitary)

Most sandpipers migrate in flocks and nest on the ground, but the Solitary Sandpiper does neither. In migration it is usually alone and it is most often seen near fresh water. When approached, it may bob nervously and fly away with sharp whistled cries. The Solitary Sandpiper is different from 84 of the 85 other types of sandpipers in that it nests in trees instead of on the ground.

Sandpiper (Western)

Western Sandpipers can be hard to distinguish from Semi-palmated and Bairds Sandpipers because of similar features including a dark bill and dark legs. Their body is brown on top and white underneath and they are reddish-brown on the crown. The western sandpiper acquires winter plumage (plain gray) much earlier in the autumn than the semi-palmated sandpiper. They start showing up on Vancouver Island in April on their journey north and are done by November. The greatest numbers are usually seen in July and August and they are the most abundant shorebird on Vancouver Island. The Tofino Mudflats is one of the best bird watching areas to see the Western Sandpiper.

Turnstone (Black)

The Black Turnstone mostly seen feeding on crustaceans, invertebrates, barnacles, limpets and other mollusks pried from rocks along Vancouver Island’s coasts but can also feed on mudflats and in piles of seaweed on sand or pebble beaches. They will often be in smaller flocks of 10 to 50 birds, but can be seen in much larger flocks. They breed in western Alaska and spend the winters anywhere from southern Alaska to Mexico. Adults come back to the same nesting sites and nest with the same mate each year. The female often leaves the next 2 weeks after the chicks are hatched.


Tattler (Wandering)

Tattlers are generally scarce birds that breed in eastern Siberia and Alaska. There are two very similar species and this is the American Wandering Tattler (Heteroscelusincanus). Heteroscelus translates as different legs because unlike other wading birds, it has a different pattern of scales on the front and back of its tarsus (lower leg). In 1858 Spencer Fullerton Baird wrote “This very remarkable sandpiper differs, in the hexagonal scutellation of the tibia and the posterior face of the tarsus…”. Amazingly the different scaling between the front and back of its lower leg (tarsus) is visible on this photograph. For completeness, the other part of its scientific name (incanus) means “light grey” for obvious reasons. This feature separates it from the Siberian Grey-tailed Tattler which has elongated scales on the rear of the tarsus. Tattlers also have a groove on the bill which is longer in the American Wandering Tattler, which is also visible in this photograph.

Wandering Tattlers breed by mountain streams mainly in Alaska, and winter on rocky coasts mainly in Mexico but also southern California. They are usually found at low density so are always a treat to find. (By Tim Melling)

Yellow Legs (Greater)

Greater Yellow Legs are larger than their counterpart and the can be distinguished by a longer bill and longer legs. Their call is louder as well and can spook other shorebirds when coming close to them. It is mostly seen in salt and fresh water beaches and estuaries. Greater Yellow legs are usually in small flocks unless favourable feeding conditions bring more together. They are often found with Lesser Yellowlegs and are found in greater numbers in southern Vancouver Island. Spring migration is from late February to late May and the autumn migration from late June to November with a peak around mid-August. Southern Vancouver Island may have Yellowlegs during winter months.

Yellow Legs (Lesser)

The Lesser (smaller) Yellowlegs is about half the size of Greater Yellowlegs and the bill not much longer than the length of its head. Compared to its size, the Lesser Yellowlegs has longer legs. The Lesser Yellowlegs often allows a closer approach then the Greater Yellowlegs, but both bob their heads up and down when watching an intruder.