Purple Sandpipers in their natural habitat rocks

By Peter Vankevich

One might shiver just by thinking about the habitats of the Purple Sandpiper, a rare bird on Ocracoke’s shores.

A handsome, chunky shorebird, the Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) nests in the high tundra of the arctic and winters along the rock-bound coasts of eastern North America, Greenland, Northern Europe and Iceland. This wintering range is the most northerly of all shorebirds.

North and South Carolina are about the southern limits of their winter range, arriving in early November and gone by April.

Only 25 to 50 individuals per year are usually seen in the state, and it was not until 1948 that an official state sighting was made.

Purple Sandpipers on the Ocracoke Beach. Photo by Amy Thompson

So, it was a bit of a surprise that Amy Thompson, the supervisory biological technician for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, spotted and photographed three individuals foraging with a bunch of Sanderlings on Ocracoke beach early in November.

Perhaps they stopped to rest/feed on their way to more suitable grounds.

This shorebird has the least amount of habitat of any bird species in the state.  Strictly coastal and found almost–but not always–on rocks, there are only a few places on the Outer Banks they are likely to be seen. The best locations are the jetties and huge rocks around the south side of the Marc Basnight Bridge.

On Ocracoke, the rocky edges of the village, Silver Lake Harbor and possibly the rocks of Springer’s Point, are the most likely locations to spot them.

Farther south, the best location in the state is the jetty at the south end of Wrightsville Beach in New Hanover County.

This niche habitat permits these birds to feed without competition on marine gastropods, mollusks and insects that live among the seaweed and in the rock crevices.

But these rocks are fraught with danger. 

Noted Newfoundland ornithologist Bruce Mactavish, who has had many years of observation, describes Purple Sandpipers as wave daredevils.

“They taunt death and injury every day with a calm brilliance,” he writes. “They cannot always see the next wave rolling in when they are probing among the rocks. They must use their ears and perhaps a sixth sense to feel the pressure wave of the air rushing ahead of an incoming onslaught of water. They have to be continually ready to press the eject button that activates an instant flutter up and out of danger instinct. If they get caught by the white water, it is only a momentary inconvenience.

“Their finely tuned senses and physical strengths allow them to live on a knife edge in the treacherous wave zone of the most exposed rocky places.”

The few locations in North Carolina pose nowhere near the level of danger as they would face on the rock-bound coasts of Maine and Newfoundland.

Purple Sandpiper. Photograph by Jeff Beane

Like many bird species, this bird’s name is a bit misleading. Only in the right lighting can a purple tinge be seen.
In winter the Purple Sandpiper has a dark back, paler gray head and white belly with spots and a streaky breast. It has bright yellowish legs and dark bill that is also yellow at the base. Like many species, in summer they are more colorful with chestnut, buff, and light-brown colors.

Birders should be aware that another similar-sized shorebird found on rocks is much more common in the fall and winter and could be confused with the Purple Sandpiper. That bird is the Ruddy Turnstone. Its winter plumage is drab compared to its colorful orange, black and white appearance during the summer.

On breeding grounds, Purple Sandpipers nest on mossy tundra, heath, moorlands, rocky ridges, coarse gravel-sand beaches along rivers and along barren coastal beaches. There they perform aerial courtship displays.

If a predator approaches the nest, they will do a rodent run display in which they ruffle the back feathers, crouch, and run away from the predator resembling the flight response of a small rodent.

Females typically lay one clutch of four eggs, incubate them for three weeks and then leave the area.

Males, call them single dads by that time, remain behind for several more weeks to tend to the precocial young, which fly within five to six weeks. In the fall, they migrate south in flocks.

Listen: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a variety of Purple Sanpiper recordings. Click here.

When to see: Mid-fall into winter, arrivals and departures vary from year-to-year. 

Where: The rocks around Silver Lake Harbor and the Pamlico Sound, the rocks at Springer’s Point, rarely on the beach.

Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist

Peter Vankevich is the co-founder and compiler of the Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands Christmas Bird Counts.

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