Purple Sandpiper

Calidris maritima



A medium wader that's plumper and darker than the Dunlin. Its downcurved bill has a yellowish base, and the relatively short legs are yellowish through all seasons. During spring, the upperparts are mostly purplish-brown; the head and neck are streaked with white, and the back has white and rusty-coloured patches, giving a scaly appearance. In summer, the plumage is reddish-brown with black back feathers. The face is pale and streaked brown-grey; the crown is rust-coloured and the ear coverts are dark. The plumage is darker during winter, a blue-grey colour with dark streaks along the flanks and a white belly. The female is bigger than the male, her bill slightly longer. Juveniles resemble a greyer winter adult; many of the back feathers are rufous and they have pale edges which give a scaly effect. There are streaks on the neck, breast and flanks. White wing-bars and a dark tail with white sides show in flight.


Breeding grounds are usually on Arctic-Alpine heath with sedges, mosses and lichens. At other times (and when in the region), these birds are coastal, preferring rocky beaches and islets for feeding.


Forages at the breaking point of waves on rocky shores, searching for small invertebrates in gullies and seaweed. Dodges waves by fluttering, jumping or swimming. Flies rapidly and low over the sea in small groups, and often associates with Turnstones.


Winter diet includes small winkles, mussels, dog-whelks, shrimps, small crabs and insects. Eats mostly insects and plant material during the summer.


Nesting begins in June or July, when the male creates multiple scrapes on the ground from which the female chooses one. She lays 3 or 4 eggs and the male does most of the 21-22 days of incubation. Female may leave before the eggs hatch. Hatchlings can feed themselves and the male looks after them for 3-4 weeks.


Birds that winter in Britain arrive from Canada, Greenland and Norway; juveniles arrive first, because the adults stop to moult along the way, before they arrive in September or October. They depart between February and May. There have been 1-5 nesting pairs in Scotland, but this bird is predominately a non-breeding visitor. About 13 000 individuals winter in the UK and more than 3000 in Ireland.

Observation Tips

The rocky coasts of the region are the best places to find this mostly winter visitor, particularly around Orkney, Shetland and along the east coast of Scotland and the north-east coast of England. The bird's discreet nature and camouflage can make it easy to miss, though once discovered, it can be quite relaxed under observation, even at close range. May be found in flocks, feeding where the waves break on rocky shores, or on the far point of headlands.


Mostly a quiet bird, but may make a piercing 'kwit' call in flight, or a 'wee-wit' as it takes off.
Back to Bird Index