Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
Nature Bulletins
Newton Home Page

Introduction and Instructions

Search Engine

Table of Contents



The Sandpipers
Nature Bulletin No. 672-A   March 25, 1978
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Along streams we often see small spindle-legged birds busily searching for food near the water's edge. They have a curious habit of wagging the hind part of their bodies up and down. If we approach them they fly, crying "peet weet. " We also see them around sloughs, ponds and lakes in the forest preserves.

Those are Spotted Sandpipers, commonly called "teeter-tails, " "tip-ups, " or "peet weets. " This species, most widely distributed of all the sandpipers, is also unique in having round black spots on its white underparts. The back is olive brown. They nest from Alaska and northern Canada to southern California and the Gulf of Mexico, wintering from there to Brazil and Peru.

The Sandpiper Family includes almost 100 species of shore birds. There are 31 that occur regularly in the Americas and four of them nest in Chicagoland -- the spotted sandpiper, the upland plover or Bartram's sandpiper, the woodcock (described in Bulletin No. 123-A) and, rarely, the Wilson's snipe or jacksnipe.

Most species of this family nest far north and are seen in the United States only when migrating. The curlews, godwits, the knot, and several sandpipers travel along our seacoasts but seldom through the Chicago region. The greater and the lesser yellowlegs, dowitcher, jacksnipe, sanderling, and five of the sandpipers are common or fairly common migrants observed by bird watchers here.

Along the shores of Lake Michigan and on mud flats around Wolf Lake and Lake Calumet, mixed flocks of these shore birds congregate to feed on small mollusks and crustaceans, worms, insects and little fish. It is fun to watch some kinds chase a receding wave and scamper back ahead of the next one. To the casual onlooker they all appear much alike except that some are larger than others and some, like the "teeter- tail, " have peculiar mannerisms.

In general, the sandpipers are small or medium in size. Their bills are slender and straight but vary considerably in length. They have long, pointed wings, short stiff tails, and relatively long skinny legs. The hind toes are short and the long front toes -- except, partially, on the little Semi-palmated Sandpiper -- are not webbed. All but one kind make shallow nests on the ground.

That exception is the Solitary Sandpiper. All of its eggs discovered so far were in deserted nests of other birds in Canada. During migrations it is commonly found here along streams and around woodland ponds. About 8 inches long and a little larger than the spotted sandpiper, it is distinguished by the habit, when alighting, of holding its wings high above the back for a moment and then, after folding them, of bobbing its head and bowing in an amusing manner.

The Least Sandpiper, about 6 inches long, and the semi-palmated, a trifle larger, are abundant here during migrations, and also, in grassy wetlands, the Pectoral Sandpiper which inflates its chest to utter sounds like someone blowing across the top of a bottle. The Upland Plover, formerly nesting and abundant on midwestern prairies, has become scarce because they were converted into farm lands and because -- like the woodcock, jacksnipe and some other species -- it was prized as a game bird and wantonly destroyed.

If you want to learn more about sandpipers and their kin, we recommend the Audubon Water Bird Guide published by Doubleday and Company.

To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Hosted by NEWTON

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Sponsered by Argonne National Labs