Green and Wood Sandpipers

Juvenile Wood Sandpiper at Seaforth, Lancashire, by Steve Young
Juvenile Wood Sandpiper at Seaforth, Lancashire, by Steve Young

Key featured species

  • Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
  • Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
  • Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
  • Redshank Tringa totanus

The problem

As medium-sized freshwater waders that have a similar basic pattern of dark upperparts and breast, white underparts, plain dark wings and a prominent white rump, Green and Wood Sandpipers are often confused.

The solutions

Green Sandpiper

Both species are essentially birds of the coniferous forest belt or taiga where, quite remarkably, Green Sandpiper usually lays its eggs in old nests such as those of Fieldfare, Redwing and Woodpigeon, as well as in disused squirrel dreys.

After breeding, the first migrants start to return from Scandinavia in the middle of June, usually the third week.They reappear so early because one of the parents, generally the female, spends only three or four weeks on the breeding grounds before heading south, leaving the other to look after the chicks. These early migrants are therefore still in summer plumage, which is dark greenish-brown above, finely and delicately spotted with white or buff. The breast is also dark and is coarsely streaked, forming a complete, clear-cut and obvious breast band. Closer views reveal a white eyering that is connected to the bill by a white fore-supercilium.

When at rest, Green Sandpiper appears a rather plump and bulky bird with shortish green legs. It feeds unobtrusively in small pools or along the wet, muddy margins of larger lakes, often in areas with scattered vegetation – in fact, the kind of habitat also favoured by Common Snipe. It tends to be solitary, but sometimes small groups of up to four or five – rarely more – may be seen.

When spooked, the birds are noisy and excitable, and are then easily identified by their very distinctive loud, ringing calls: too-leet too-leet too-leet. If they are flushed unexpectedly at close range, they often tower high into the air, giving a more clipped, panic-stricken tlip tlip tlip tlip, before reverting to their more usual call as they head off into the distance. In flight they look like giant House Martins, appearing dark above, with a prominent white rump and contrasting black underwings.

By the end of July, Green Sandpiper numbers are swelled considerably by the arrival of the year’s juveniles. They look quite similar to the adults, but close scrutiny shows them to be neat and immaculate, with more regular buff spotting on the upperparts, whereas the adults at this time of year look slightly more worn, dishevelled and often quite scruffy. In late summer, pay attention to the wing moult: adults on migration can often be readily aged by the presence of a fairly obvious gap in the inner primaries and outer secondaries. This is because they often suspend their moult during migration, rendering them separable from their offspring, which do not wing moult.

Wood Sandpiper

Although it too nests mainly in the taiga, Wood Sandpiper also breeds in small numbers (usually 10-20 pairs) in northern Scotland. Unlike Green Sandpiper, it nests on the ground in bogs and marshes. Adults leave their breeding grounds somewhat later than Green Sandpipers, from late June to early August, but it seems that many fly direct to staging areas on the northern side of the Mediterranean, where they fatten up prior to their trans-Saharan crossing (Cramp and Simmons 1983). Adults are therefore scarce in Britain, particularly in the west, although they are more regular down the east coast. It is in late June and July that dubious claims of Wood Sandpipers stand out, mainly because it is quite a rare bird before the first juveniles appear at the end of July.

So how do you tell a Wood from a Green? Perhaps the most useful difference is structure. Unlike the rather fat, rounded and short-legged Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper appears much more elegant, with its longer neck, longer legs and slimmer build topped by a rather square head. Whereas Green Sandpiper is reminiscent of a large Common Sandpiper, Wood recalls a small shank, perhaps a slim and dainty Redshank or, for the more rarity-minded, a miniature Lesser Yellowlegs. It is, in fact, one of the most elegantly proportioned and exquisitely dainty of all the waders.

In terms of plumage, it is a distinctly browner bird than Green Sandpiper, particularly at a distance, and a paler breast band merges more gradually with the white underparts. The most obvious features are a white supercilium, which contributes to a distinctly capped effect, and very heavily spotted or even chequered upperparts. By late summer the chequering is often bleached to whitish.

In flight, Wood Sandpiper is also rather shank-like, with a more elongated appearance due mainly to its longer legs; unlike Green Sandpiper, its toes project well beyond the tip of the tail. It shares Green Sandpiper’s plain upperwings and square white rump, but the latter is less eye-catching against the browner plumage. Another important point is that the underwings, being pale, don’t give the smart, black-and-white ‘House Martin’ effect that Green Sandpiper shows in flight.

Wood Sandpiper’s call is completely different from Green’s, being a high-pitched double- or treble-noted chif-if or chif-if-if.

Juvenile Wood Sandpipers are in many ways similar to the adults but, whereas the latter are rather worn and coarsely chequered above, juveniles are neatly, regularly and immaculately spotted or chequered with buff and consequently look much smarter. Like the adults, they show a distinct whitish supercilium and capped appearance, but the breast band is more neatly streaked.

Although a juvenile Wood Sandpiper is an immaculately patterned wader, it lacks the smart black-and-white contrasts of its more familiar cousin.

As well as being solitary, Green Sandpiper tends to be secretive, whereas Wood Sandpiper is a bird of open shorelines, sometimes gathering in small parties there, particularly on the Continent where they are much more common.

Green Sandpiper numbers tend to peak in the third week of August and those of Wood Sandpiper a little later, generally in the fourth week of August or the first week of September. Even then, Wood Sandpipers are scarce and sightings of them are always greatly appreciated by birders. Their stay is brief and by mid-September most of them have gone.

Common Sandpiper and Redshank confusions

Many Green Sandpipers winter in Britain, staying as late as mid-April before departing for their brief sojourn on the taiga. It is surprising how often Green Sandpipers are misidentified as Common Sandpipers in winter.

For some reason, many people seem to assume that Common Sandpiper is much more likely in winter. In fact, in most freshwater habitats the opposite is true, as Common Sandpiper favours more brackish environments at this time.

If in doubt, Common is smaller and browner, with a longer tail that projects beyond the wing-tips at rest. Moreover, it has browner breast sides that fade in the centre of the breast, and there is an obvious lobe of white at extends around the bend of the wing, intruding up into the sides of the breast.

In flight, Common Sandpiper has a white wing-bar which is evident as it flies low over the water with a very distinctive stiff, flicking, bow-winged action. When flushed, it often gives a characteristic, rather ringing, high-pitched tee-tee-tee-tee-tee.

Surprisingly, in late summer Wood Sandpiper can also be confused with juvenile Common Redshank, particularly if seen at a distance or against the light.

We tend to think of Redshank in its plain grey winter plumage or its brown summer plumage, when it is liberally patterned with black. Not only are juvenile Redshanks browner but, rather like Wood Sandpipers, they are well spotted with buff right across their upperparts and they are also neatly streaked below.

In addition, whereas adult Redshanks have bright red legs, juveniles have yellow-orange legs that appear much duller and may not necessarily stand out at a distance.

If in doubt, Redshank has a relatively plain face, lacking Wood Sandpiper’s obvious supercilium and capped effect. If it flies or wing-flaps, the prominent white secondary and inner primary patch is always an instant give-away.


Cramp, S (ed). 1983. The Birds of the Western Palearctic Vol III. Oxford University Press, Oxford.