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10 Fascinating Facts About the Buff-breasted Sandpiper

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper, scientifically known as Calidris subruficollis, is a bird species that belongs to the family of sandpipers, commonly found in North America. It is an elegant bird that has specialized features that make it unique among its peers.

This article seeks to provide insightful information about this bird species, including its identification, plumages, and molts.


Field Identification

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper has a distinct long and thin neck that sets it apart from other sandpipers. It has a buff-colored breast, which is a bit lighter than the rest of its body color.

Its upperparts, including the head, wings, back, and tail, are brownish-grey, while its underparts are white. Its eyes are relatively large and are encircled by a pale ring.

The bird has a short, straight, and sharp bill that is about twice the length of its head.

Similar Species

In-flight, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper closely resembles the Pectoral Sandpiper; however, unlike the Pectoral Sandpiper, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper does not have distinctive streaks on its chest and sides. During mating season, it may resemble the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, which, unlike the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, has spots on its wings, upperside of the chest, and the neck.


The Buff-breasted Sandpiper has four basic plumages, including juvenile, alternate, basic, and breeding.

Juvenile Plumage

During the first year, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper has an overall buff appearance with dark speckles on its back. It also has a pale superciliary line above the eyes and a brownish-grey crown.

Alternate Plumage

The alternate plumage is displayed during the breeding season and is characterized by a bright cinnamon-buff color on its nape and underparts, black feather bases, and white feather tips.

Basic Plumage

The basic plumage is the non-breeding plumage and is worn by birds outside the breeding season. It is similar to the juvenile plumage, with buff feathers streaked with darker speckles.

Breeding Plumage

The breeding plumage is shown by male Buff-breasted Sandpipers only, and it involves a drastic change in plumage coloration. Their nape turns a bright rufous, while their throat and chest turn a deep black.


Buff-breasted Sandpipers undergo two molts each year, one in spring and another in autumn. During the spring molt, birds replace their feathers as they prepare for their breeding season.

During the autumn molt, birds replace their feathers as they prepare for their southward migration. In conclusion, Buff-breasted Sandpipers are unique bird species with specialized features that distinguish them from other sandpipers.

Their long and thin neck, buff-colored breast, brownish-grey upperparts, and white underparts are hallmarks of the bird. They demonstrate four different plumages and undergo two molts each year.

Knowing this information, bird enthusiasts can identify and appreciate this fascinating bird species when they see it.

Systematics History

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Calidris subruficollis, belongs to the family Scolopacidae. The species was first described by Temminck in 1825.

In the past, the Buff-breasted Sandpipers’ taxonomic placement and relationship with other Calidris species were uncertain. However, genetic analysis has shown that it is closely related to the Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos).

Geographic Variation

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a long-distance migrant that breeds in the tundra of North America and winters in South America. It is broadly distributed across the Arctic tundra region in North America and shows slight geographic variation across its range.


The Buff-breasted Sandpiper has two recognized subspecies, Calidris subruficollis subruficollis, and Calidris subruficollis ruficollis. The subspecies differ in plumage coloration, migration strategies, and distribution.

Calidris subruficollis subruficollis is the nominate subspecies that breeds in the Arctic tundra from Alaska, Canada to Greenland. This subspecies is a long-distance migrant that winters in South America, particularly in the pampas of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Calidris subruficollis ruficollis, also known as the Peruvian Buff-breasted Sandpiper, has a broader and bolder cinnamon-buff rufous streaking on the upper breast and nape. Calidris subruficollis ruficollis breeds in the southern-eastern corner of the Alaska Peninsula to northwestern Mexico and winters in Peru and Argentina.

Related Species

Buff-breasted Sandpipers are classified in the genus Calidris, which comprises 30 species, including dunlins, red knots, and the Pectoral Sandpiper. The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is closely related to the Pectoral Sandpiper.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper has undergone significant range changes over time, and its distribution has shrunk due to habitat loss. In the past, Buff-breasted Sandpipers bred throughout the northern tundra from Alaska to Greenland, but now they breed in only a few areas of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland that remain undisturbed.

The primary cause of the species’ decreasing population is habitat destruction and hunting. The species was hunted for its feathers and meat in the nineteenth century, resulting in a decline in population in the eastern United States.

Due to the low population, the species was protected in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The decline in population has resulted in limited breeding range edges, which puts the species in more habitat loss pressure.

Additionally, global warming may negatively influence the species’ breeding habitat. The Buff-breasted Sandpiper’s winter habitat has also been impacted by human actions.

Its winter habitats in South America are threatened by agriculture, particularly rice field construction, and illegal hunting.


The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a beautiful and fascinating bird species. It has undergone significant range changes over time, and its distribution has shrunk due to habitat loss.

Despite the protections it receives, populations remain vulnerable due to hunting, loss and degradation of habitats, and global warming. Proper management and conservation efforts are necessary to protect the species and ensure its long-term survival.


The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a migratory bird species that breeds in the Arctic tundra of North America and winters in South America. During the breeding season, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper makes a nest on the ground, primarily in marshy areas with short vegetation or wet meadows of the Arctic tundra.

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is known to create nests on open ground with vegetation cover of around 50%. This vegetation cover is crucial for the bird’s nest as it must provide support for eggs and prevent overheating of the nest.

The birds’ nests may be constructed near rocks, tussocks, or other vegetation for protection against predators. During the non-breeding season, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper is found in open grasslands, savannas, flooded fields, and wetlands of South America.

The bird’s habitat preference during migration changes, as they prefer areas with shallow water, mudflats, or sandy beaches.

Movements and Migration

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a migratory bird that generally moves along the Atlantic and Pacific flyways of North America during migration. Migrations take place twice in a year, with the fall migration period lasting from mid-July to mid-October and the spring migration from mid-April to early June.

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper typically migrates in flocks of five to fifteen individuals. During migration, the birds form loose flocks, often with other species, and travel for long distances.

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper flies at dusk and dawn, and the species can fly for up to 24 hours without stopping. The Buff-breasted Sandpiper’s migration is dependent on several ecological factors, including food availability and habitat preferences.

These birds follow patterns of optimal food and habitat and dependent on prevailing wind patterns. For example, during the fall migration towards South America, these birds follow an oceanic route along with North and South America.

In contrast, spring migration follows an inverse pattern along the interior of North America. Climate influences migration timing, and recent studies report earlier migrations in response to global warming.

Additionally, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper’s breeding success has been influenced by climate change, as a delayed onset of spring has been observed to affect nesting success.


The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a migratory bird species that requires different habitats at different times of the year.

Breeding and wintering habitats have distinctive features, although migration patterns and timing are heavily influenced by climate and ecological factors.

Protecting stopover sites, wintering areas, and breeding habitats is crucial for effective conservation of the species. Additionally, applying suitable management practices can provide better breeding habitat for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, which can ensure healthy populations of this fascinating bird into the future.

Diet and Foraging

Buff-breasted Sandpipers forage both during breeding and wintering habitats, primarily by gleaning in open areas. Their foraging behavior is often opportunistic, and they prey on a wide range of small insects and invertebrates.


Buff-breasted Sandpipers are ground foragers that use a unique feeding behavior known as “foot-trembling.” The birds use their feet to disturb the surface of the ground, thereby uncovering their invertebrate prey. The birds also pick up small invertebrates with their short, straight bills.

They have a preference for feeding in wet meadows, grasslands, and mudflats.


The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is known to feed on a wide range of invertebrates, including flies, beetles, spiders, earthworms, and caterpillars. During winter, the birds consume large amounts of rice-weevil and dipteran larvae in South America.

The species is known to have a flexible diet and can adapt to their changing environments by eating different invertebrate prey.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is adapted to the Arctic environment by their unique metabolic and temperature regulation abilities. Even at low ambient temperatures, their metabolism allows them to generate enough energy to sustain long-distance flights and maintain normal metabolic processes.

Additionally, the species can rapidly convert food into energy to maintain normal body heat during extreme cold temperatures.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


The Buff-breasted Sandpiper’s vocalization generally includes a series of whistles, trills, and harsh chattering notes. They have a distinctive call that is often heard during the breeding season and migration.

The male produces a distinctive buzzy trill that is usually about two seconds long, compared to the female’s longer, higher-pitched whistle. Their calls are generally soft, low-pitched, and brief.

During breeding season, male Buff-breasted Sandpipers engage in elaborate courtship displays, which include singing and exposing their rufous nape feathers. The males gather in groups, displaying, singing, and posturing, which is often directed towards females.

Courtship displays are accompanied by loud, harsh notes that are intended to attract females. During migration, vocalizations serve to maintain group cohesion and communication among individuals.

The birds often forage and migrate in loose flocks, and vocalization is essential to maintaining cohesiveness.


Buff-breasted Sandpipers are well-adapted to the Arctic tundra of North America, where they breed, and to the grasslands and mudflats of South America, where they winter. Their flexible diet and unique foraging behavior enable them to adapt to changing environments quickly.

The species has a distinctive vocalization that serves both in courtship during the breeding season and maintaining communication and cohesion during migration. Overall, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a fascinating bird species with unique ecological adaptations and behaviors that ensure its survival in changing environments.



The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a small, ground-dwelling bird that moves around using a characteristic walk with short rapid steps. Their relatively short and straight bill enables them to probe and search the ground for food effectively.

Despite their small size, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper is an accomplished long-distance flier, with the ability to fly non-stop for extended periods during migration.

Self Maintenance

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is known to engage in self-maintenance behavior, which involves preening and bathing. During preening, the birds clean their feathers with their beaks and coat them with preen oil from a gland located at the base of their tail.

Preen oil helps to improve feather insulation, waterproof feathers, reduce bacterial growth, and deter pests.

Agonistic Behavior

Agonistic behavior includes intra-specific competition among Buff-breasted Sandpipers during the breeding season. The birds display aggressive behavior towards conspecifics to secure their breeding territories.

These behaviors include chasing, fighting, posturing, and vocalization. However, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper is not known to exhibit any aggression towards other bird species or animals.

Sexual Behavior

Buff-breasted Sandpipers have unique breeding behavior that involves elaborate courtship displays, vocalizations, and physical displays of plumage. Males gather in groups and perform intricate dances and displays to attract females.

Males raise and display their cinnamon-buff rufous nape feathers while vocalizing to display their fitness and attract potential mates.


Buff-breasted Sandpipers are monogamous, with pairs usually forming a bond around the breeding season. They breed in the Arctic tundra, and the females lay an average of four eggs.

The eggs are incubated by both sexes for around 20 days until they hatch. The male and female breeders share the responsibilities of incubation, brooding, and feeding of the chicks.

Demography and Populations

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper, like many bird species, has experienced population declines in recent decades. The primary threats to the species’ population are loss of breeding and wintering habitats, oil and gas drilling activities, and climate change.

Estimates indicate that the breeding population is around 50,000 individuals, with approximately 15,000 in North America and 35,000 in Russia. Recent studies suggest a decline in population trends, with the species listed as globally vulnerable.

The decline in the population has sparked intensive conservation efforts by governmental and non-governmental organizations to support and sustain the Buff-breasted Sandpiper’s habitat.


The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a unique bird species with fascinating ecological behaviors and adaptations. The species’ behavior includes unique self-maintenance behaviors, such as preening and bathing, and display behavior during breeding.

The species faces major threats, mainly habitat loss, and oil and gas drilling activities, which have contributed to its declining population. The populations remain vulnerable and require continued conservation efforts to maintain their numbers.

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a beautiful and fascinating bird species with unique ecological adaptations, behaviors, and vocalizations. The species’ breeding, wintering, and foraging habitats are crucial for its survival, and they are vulnerable to habitat loss and climate change.

The species’ populations have declined, highlighting the need for continued conservation efforts to protect their breeding and wintering habitats, and to mitigate the threats of oil and gas developments. Conservation scientists and organizations play a critical role in ensuring sustainable breeding populations and maintaining a healthy ecosystem in which this species, and others, may flourish.

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper stands as a vital indicator for the health of the ecosystems they live in, and we must work to ensure their continued survival for generations to come.

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