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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 7:54 EDT

Common Sandpiper, Actitis hypoleucos

The Common Sandpiper (actitis hypoleucos) is a petite Palearctic wader. This bird and its American sister species, the Spotted Sandpiper (A. macularia), make up the genus Actitus. They are parapatric and substitute each other geographically; stray birds of either species may settle down with breeders of the other species and hybridize. Hybridization has also been reported between the Common Sandpiper and the Green Sandpiper, a basal species of the closely related shank genus Tringa.

An adult Common Sandpiper is 18 to 20 cm long with a 32 to 35 cm wingspan. It has underparts that are grayish brown, upperparts that are white, short dark yellowish legs and feet, and a bill with a pale base and dark tip. In winter plumage, they are duller and have more conspicuous barring on the wings, though this is still only visible at close range. The young birds are more heavily barred above and have beige edges to the wing feathers. This species is very similar to the slightly bigger Spotted Sandpiper (A. macularia) in nonbreeding plumage. But its darker legs and feet and the crisper wing pattern (visible in flight) tend to give it away, and of course they are only rarely found in the same location.

It is a gregarious bird and it’s seen in large flocks, and has the distinctive stiff-winged flight, low over the water, of Actitus waters. The Common Sandpiper breeds across most of temperate and subtropical Europe and Asia, and migrates to Africa, southern Asia and Australia during the winter. The eastern edge of its migration route passes by Palau in Micronesia, where hundreds of birds might gather for a stop-over. They leave the Palau region for their breeding quarters around the last week of April to the first week of May.

The Common Sandpiper hunts using their sight on the ground or in shallow water, picking up small food items like insects, crustaceans, and other invertebrates; it might even catch insects in flight. In the Nukumanu language of the Nukumanu Islands in Papua New Guinea, this species is usually called tiritavoi. Another Nukumanu name for it, matakakoni, exists, but this is considered somewhat taboo and not used when women and children are around. The reasoning for this is that matakakoni means “bird that walks a little, then copulates”; in reference to the pumping tail and thrusting head movements the Actitus species normally perform during foraging.

It nests near freshwater on the ground. When they are threatened, the young might cling to their parent’s body to be flown away to safety.

The Common Sandpiper is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies.

It is widespread and common; and therefore it is classified as a Species of Least Concern by the IUCN but is a vulnerable species in some states of Australia.

Image Caption: Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), Laem Pak Bia, Petchaburi, Thailand. Credit: JJ Harrison/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos