Wader Wednesday – Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpipers

The other day I was fortunate enough to come across a group of summer plumage purple sandpipers on a Shetland beach. The purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima) is a medium-sized wader of the sandpiper family Scolopacidae. It is larger, stockier and darker than a dunlin, with a downcurved beak and short bright orange legs. In flight, it shows a thin white wing-stripe. Despite its name, it is not really purple, but rather dark grey above and whitish below with dark streaks. I am a big fan of purple sandpipers, so much so that I sort of named my company Purple Plover after them (I realise that taxonomically I am dodgy ground with that name, but it alliterates and I like it!)

Purple Sandpipers in summer plumage
Purple Sandpipers in flight

Habitat and Breeding

The purple sandpiper breeds on coasts and tundra in the far north of Eurasia and North America1. It nests on the ground among rocks or vegetation, laying three to four eggs in a shallow scrape. The chicks are precocial, meaning they can feed themselves soon after hatching (typically within 2 to 3 days).

In late summer and autumn, the purple sandpiper migrates south to spend the winter on temperate and subtropical shores. In the UK, it is mainly a winter visitor to almost any rocky coast, especially around piers, groynes and breakwaters where it often forms flocks with turnstones, searching for food among the seaweed. There are a few pairs of purple sandpiper that breed in the Scottish uplands, but their locations are closely guarded. It is classified as Red under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5: the Red List for Birds (2021) and is protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The main threats to its survival are habitat loss, disturbance, pollution and climate change

Sanderlings and Purple sandpipers in flight

Purple Sandpiper Facts

  • The purple sandpiper has the northernmost winter range of any wader.
  • Purple sandpipers breeding in Arctic Canada may migrate through Greenland and Iceland and winter in Europe.
  • The oldest known purple sandpiper was at least 20 years, 9 months old, and lived in Sweden.
  • The purple sandpiper is one of the UK’s rarest waders and is classified as Red under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5: the Red List for Birds (2021). It is listed on Schedule 1 of The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
  • The breeding areas of the purple sandpiper in Scotland are kept secret to protect the birds from egg thieves and disturbance.
  • The purple sandpiper feeds on winkles, insects, spiders, crustaceans and plants.
  • The purple sandpiper is not really purple!
Purple Sandpipers with turnstones