Baird's Sandpiper

Bird of the Month: Baird's Sandpiper

By Andy McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Baird’s Sandpiper)

PC: Mick Thompson (Baird’s Sandpiper)

Scientific Name: Calidris bairdii

Length 7.5 in

Wingspan 17 in

Weight 1.3 oz (38 g)

AOU Band code BASA

Baird’s Sandpiper is not seen very often in Washington and because of this it poses an identification challenge for many birders. However, its slightly larger size when compared to other peeps; its lack of red or rufous coloration; and its penchant for foraging higher on beaches and in drier areas, all help to separate this peep from the others. 

A Slightly Larger Peep

Baird’s Sandpiper is larger than most other peeps. It has a slender profile, and is of medium size. It is about one inch larger than the Western Sandpiper and one inch smaller than the Pectoral Sandpiper, which it resembles in having buffy, but less well-defined, breast streaking. Its bill is medium length, straight, and pointed. Both its legs and bill are black. It has long wings which extend beyond the tail and are raised slightly above the tail while the bird is feeding (Dunne).

Long Distance Migrant

In spring Baird’s Sandpipers migrate along the Central Flyway east of the Rocky Mountains and arrive on the Arctic breeding grounds in late May.

Fall migration of adults and juveniles will vary. Adult Baird’s Sandpipers will migrate through central North America making a long flight covering 6,000 kilometers to northern South America. Some will continue for a total of 15,000 kilometers. They will complete this long migration in a four to six-week period, making it one of the fastest migrations of any bird species (Moskoff and Montgomerie). 

Fall in Washington is for Juveniles

Juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers migrate at a slower pace and spread out over a broader front with some straying west of the Cascade Range. The juveniles begin their migration with limited fat stores and must stop to refuel along the way. They can be seen in coastal and inland ponds, and sometimes at higher elevations. “Very few other shorebirds are so regular as migrants in the mountains” (Paulson).

Most of the Baird’s Sandpipers are seen in Washington during fall migration from late July to September, when a few will be spotted west of the Cascades. The sightings will usually be of freshly molted juveniles and will show bright plumage marked by medium to dark brown feathers with edges varying from light buff to white. If an adult Baird’s Sandpiper is seen in fall, it will likely have worn plumage, as the adults molt on the South American wintering grounds (Howell). 

High Arctic Breeder

Baird’s Sandpiper breeds in the tundra in an area of rocks and low foliage. The nest consists of a shallow scrape lined with lichen, grass, and dry leaves. Usually four pinkish buff eggs marked with dark brown splotches are deposited. Incubation by both parents lasts about three weeks. Downy young leave the nest shortly after hatching. First flight occurs in a little over two more weeks (Kaufman). Their diet consists mostly of insects.

Baird’s Sandpiper is in the genus Calidris, from the Greek kalidris, used by Aristotle for a speckled waterbird (Holloway). It was named for Spencer Fullerton Baird (1923-1887), a secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, by Elliot Coues, one of Baird’s students, who discovered the sandpiper while reviewing specimens brought to the institute from an expedition to Canada (Mearns and Mearns).  The population of Baird’s Sandpiper appears stable and the North American population is estimated with moderate reliability at about 300,000 individuals.