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Peep Identification

There are five species of peeps that can be hard to distinguish from one another at any time of the year.  They are White-rumped, Baird’s, Western, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpipers.  This group of five peeps can be split into two groups:  large peeps (White-rumped and Baird’s) and small peeps (Western, Semipalmated and Least).

Distinguishing Small Peeps from Large Peeps

Without much experience, distinguishing sizes of peeps in the field can be difficult.  The best way to get a grasp on the different sizes is to bird in a location where there are many shorebirds.  After a few experiences with these species, it shouldn’t be too difficult to understand the size difference.  One of the biggest differences in shape between small and large peeps is wing length.  While in a resting position the wings of a large peep extend beyond the tail feathers while the wings of a small peep do not extend beyond the tail feathers.  Because of this, large peeps have a more elegant, thin look than the small peeps.  Small peeps look stout and much less elegant.

Western, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpiper

Leg Color:
If you are close to one of these three sandpipers, the simplest field mark is the yellow legs of the Least Sandpiper (this is true in all ages and sexes).  Both the Semipalmated and the Western have black legs.  The yellow legs of the Least Sandpiper can be hard to see at a distance and when their legs get muddy. 

Shape:
The shape of the bird’s bill can be very important for identifying these species.  The Semipalmated has the bluntest tipped, straightest bill.  The bill is thick at the base and never comes to a fine tip.  The Least has a very fine-tipped, slightly decurved bill.  The Western has a much longer, more decurved bill than the other two small peeps and is also finely tipped. 

Paying attention to head shape can also be useful when identifying these birds.    The Semipalmated Sandpiper has the largest head compared to its body, making it seem more stocky and compact then the other two small peeps.  The Western’s head is smaller than its body, which makes it seem more stretched out and elegant.   The Least Sandpiper has a very small head compared to its body size.  From many angles, the Least Sandpiper can be identified by the very small head alone.

Plumage:
The plumage is important but changes based on the time of year (unlike the shape). 

Breeding Plumage:
In breeding plumage, the Least Sandpiper is the darkest, richest brown of the small peeps.  It has the most rufous coloring throughout its plumage.  The Western has a richer rufous color than the Least, but it is contained to the scapulars (shoulder of the wing), auriculars (cheek), and crown.  The rufous coloring on the Western stands out much more because the contrast is greater between the rufous and gray feathers.

Non-breeding Western Sandpiper

Non-breeding Western Sandpiper

Non-breeding Plumage:
All three small peeps are gray overall in non-breeding plumage.  The Least is the darkest followed by Semipalmated then Western.  The amount of streaking on the chest is variable but usually the Least has the most streaking with the Western having the least streaking.  Both the Western and Semipalmated have a defined supercillium and the Least has a very faint supercillium.

Non-breeding Semipalmated Sandpiper

Non-breeding Semipalmated Sandpiper

Juvenile Plumage:
In juvenile plumage, the Least is very rufous in color overall and appears very bright.  The Western is very rufous on the scapulars but is not as overall bright and colorful than the Least.  The Semipalmated is very brown overall without much color.  The Least usually has the heaviest streaking on the chest followed by Semipalmated then Western.  The Semipalmated has the most distinct supercillium.

Juvenile Least Sandpiper

This juvenile Least Sandpiper exhibits the overall rufous coloration
and the brightness typically shown by the juveniles of this species.

Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpiper

Bill Color/Shape:
The Baird’s has a little shorter and thinner bill than White-rumped.  The White-rumped has a pale base to the bill which is distinctive if you are close enough to see it.

Breeding Plumage:
During breeding plumage, the Baird’s Sandpiper is very brown overall and the White-rumped is very gray overall with rufous coloring on the cap, auriculars, and scapulars.  The White-rumped has streaking on the chest and down the sides.  The Baird’s has a buffy breast without any streaking on the sides and has very distinct black spotting on the back.

Non-breeding Plumage:
The Baird’s is very brown overall and the White-rumped is very gray overall.  The White-rumped has streaking on the sides and a very distinct supercillium.  The Baird’s has a tan breast and a white loral spot.

Juvenile Plumage:
The White-rumped is gray overall with rufous coloring in the scapulars and cap.  The Baird’s is brown overall with a buffy breast and a scaly patterned back.  The White-rumped has a distinct supercillium while the Baird’s has an indistinct supercillium with a white loral spot.

Peep Identification Table

In order to make it easier to quickly access all of the information contained in this article, I have created a table that can be used as a quick reference. Please click on the table to see a table that is a little easier to read.

Peep Identification Table