Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper Winter Distribution 2007-11 (Click to zoom)
View Atlas Mapstore

The Purple Sandpiper is a winter visitor to almost any rocky coast in Britain and Ireland. They are one of a number of species that regularly occur outside of esturies, which the BTO are seeking to increase observations of, as part of the new Non-Estuarine Waterbird Survey (NEWS).

They are widely distributed around the coast though they are most abundant in the northern isles – Orkney and Shetland and along the east coast of Scotland, north-eastern England and Devon and Cornwall and scarce elsewhere. Occasional pairs may breed in Scotland on high mountains but not annually, with just two confirmed breeding records during the 2007-11 Atlas period. Purple Sandpiper is currently AMBER listed in the Birds of Conservation list based on a Non-breeding Population decline by more than 25% but less than 50% and a UK breeding population of less than 300 pairs.


The Purple Sandpiper is a medium-sized wading bird, slightly larger, stockier and darker than a Dunlin. It is mainly dark grey above and whitish below. It has a slight down-curved beak and distinctive short bright orange legs. In flight it shows a thin white wing-stripe on otherwise dark wings.

Wintering numbers

Three separate populations of Purple Sandpiper winter in Britain and Ireland, those in the north and west originate from those breeding on northern tundra on Arctic islands in Canada and from coastal areas in Greenland, and those wintering in eastern England from northeast Europe in Scandinavia and Svalbard.  Numbers recorded by the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) have shown a steady decline since the late 1980s, though being primarily birds of rocky coast this species is not well covered by WeBS.  Decennial Non-Estuarine Waterbird Surveys are useful for covering habitats not traditionally covered by WeBS, with surveys carried out in 1985, 1997/98 and 2006/07 and an up and coming survey taking place this coming winter.  One of the key aims of NEWS is to produce a new updated population estimate. The current population estimate is 13,000 birds (PDF) and is based on surveys in the period 2004/05-2008/09.

How can I help?

The non-estuarine coastline is broken up into count sectors approximately 2km long, though some are shorter and some longer. There are 10 priority sections which have been selected at random in each NEWS region. These priority sections will be allocated first and then the others will be available for allocation. The survey runs from 1st December 2015 to 31st January 2016 and just a single count is needed, with all birds and mammals using the section recorded. 

If you visit the coast and would like to take part, visit the NEWS page for more information.

More BirdFacts for this species Non-Esturine Waterbird Survey

Related content