For most birdwatchers the Wood Sandpiper is one of those special autumn passage birds, a wader seen on the edge of a freshwater pool close to the coast or perhaps a larger waterbody located further inland. Longer-legged than its similar-sized relatives, this is an elegant wader with spotted upperparts and a prominent pale supercilium, the latter extending back from the bill and over the eye.
Britain supports a tiny breeding population, which is confined to boggy sites in northern Scotland, so the vast majority of autumn passage birds will be from breeding populations located further north and east. Spring passage is notably smaller than that seen in autumn. Both members of a breeding pair participate in undulating song flights early in the breeding season but are otherwise secretive in habits during the nesting period. Both male and female share incubation duties, taking turns to sit on a clutch of three or four eggs, and it is during the change over that those monitoring these rare birds are best able to locate the location of the nest. Wood Sandpiper chicks leave the nest soon after hatching, a behaviour common in breeding waders, and are led to suitable feeding habitat, such as a small lochan or wet flow. The parental duties shared initially, before the female leaves the male to see the young through to independence.
On the move
The Wood Sandpiper is a long-distance migrant; birds from the European part of the breeding range are thought to winter mainly in West Africa, but with some individuals wintering as far south as South Africa. A handful of individuals have been ringed here in Britain, so it is perhaps unsurprising that we have no information on where our breeding birds winter. There is, however, the record of a bird caught on autumn passage in Kent which was later trapped several years later in Liberia, West Africa, a distance of 5,282 km from where it had been ringed.
Although the species has a favourable conservation status globally, with a substantial breeding population and large range, some of its European breeding grounds have been lost to afforestation, land drainage and peat extraction. Climate change may also be having an impact, something that has been tentatively linked to declining breeding populations in southern Sweden, Germany and Poland. Possible threats to stop-over sites – where birds break their migratory journeys to rest and refuel – and to wintering grounds also need to be considered when thinking about the changing fortunes of this bird.
Catching up with the Wood Sandpiper
Autumn passage sees annual records from most of the counties in the eastern half of southern Britain, with East Anglia perhaps claiming the lion’s share. Although the first passage birds are seen in July, peak numbers usually occur during mid to late August. Most are encountered as singletons, perhaps feeding alongside other passage waders, such as Green Sandpiper. These two species – Wood and Green Sandpiper – show similarities in plumage pattern but are structurally very different-looking birds. While Green Sandpiper is a rather dumpy wader, short-legged and somewhat ‘hunched’ in profile, Wood Sandpiper is slim, longer-legged, small headed and long-necked – all round a more elegant looking bird.
As mentioned, it is freshwater bodies close to the coast that provide some of the best opportunities to catch up with Wood Sandpiper, but because passage movements occur over land, any large inland waterbody with suitable muddy shallows is worth checking during autumn. Even areas of flooded agricultural land can sometimes hold passage birds for a few days.
Wood Sandpiper features in one of the BTO’s free to access online Bird ID videos, alongside the most likely confusion species, Green Sandpiper.