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While birding a local wetland today, I encountered another birder peering at a modest flock of small sandpipers through his spotting scope. Just before offering my usual "have you seen anything interesting?" I noticed that he had an open field guide in his hand. So instead, I asked, "what are you working on? "I'm trying to sort out Least and Western Sandpipers" he replied. Over the next couple of minutes I offered some pointers and hints about shape, bill length, leg color and where these two species tend to feed. He was appreciative and I moved along hopeful that my assistance had been useful.
It's always good to be reminded that ID issues that you may have worked out long ago are hurdles that newer birders may still be navigating. I don't know how many hundreds of thousands of Least and Western Sandpipers that I've looked at over the past four decades, but it's a large enough number that they are as familiar to me as my own family members. I can readily recognize these species at a distance, often without giving the slightest thought to how I'm doing it. As I walked away from this encounter, it occurred to me that my ability to share meaningful ID hints might be hampered by this familiarity, so I spent the next thirty minutes or so taking comparative photos of these two species as they fed together in the shallows. As I did this, I tried to get shots from many angles and with the birds in the same relative feeding positions. Later, while editing the photos on my computer monitor, I attempted to look at them with a fresh eye. I also forced myself to think about the visual triggers that I use to sort them to species and convert those subconscious clues to more conscious clues that I might better explain in the future.
Field guides will tell you that Least Sandpipers have yellow or greenish-yellow legs and Westerns have black legs, thus you would think this difference would be easy to see. All too often it isn't. Juveniles and often basic-plumaged adults have darker olive-green legs. If the legs are under water, as they often are in feeding birds, it doesn't matter what color they are. If you are out birding in August and September , when the bulk of the southbound migration of Least and Western Sandpipers occurs, you may be doing so under bright sunny skies. When the sun is high (midday), the bird's body will shade the legs making them look dark. Lower sun angles produce backlighting that will also render this field mark unusable.
In looking at the photo above, I notice several aspects of color and pattern that I use semi-consciously in separating these birds, especially from a distance, or in situations where the tell-tale leg colors are not discernible. First and foremost, at all ages and in all plumages Least Sandpipers are darker and browner overall than Western Sandpipers; winter adult Leasts are darker gray. Additionally, they are darker and more heavily marked on the breast, particularly the juveniles. Hatch-year Western Sandpipers (juveniles) and adults in basic plumage are essentially unmarked and white on the breast. They may have a little bit of streaking on the sides of the upper breast and extremely fresh juveniles may show a wash (no streaking) of cinnamon buff across the upper breast. Juvenile Leasts have variable amounts of streaking across the entire breast and the breast is usually has a dull brownish wash as well.
Secondly, the I look at head and face patterns. Westerns are paler-faced overall with limited dark feathering in the auriculars and a paler, gray cap. Leasts have a more solidly dark brown cap and extensive dark feathering in the auriculars, both of which accentuate the white supercilium. From a distance, the supercilium of a Least stands out, while the supercilium of a Western is more blended into its pale face.
Finally, I notice whether the rusty scapulars–the feathers between the top of the folded wing and the middle of the back–contrast with the back and rest of the folded wing and wing coverts. The scaps on a juvenile Western tend to stand out and contrast noticeably with nape, back, and coverts, which on a juvenile Western tend to look colder and gray as they do in the photo above. Conversely, a juvenile Least has a warmer, browner nape, back and wing coverts that do not contrast with the scapulars.
There are some elements of shape and proportion that provide helpful clues when trying to separate these birds. Westerns are longer billed and their bill tips tend to be thicker and more blunt than the bill tip of a Least. Further, Westerns often look slightly hump-backed and a bit more chesty and broad across the shoulders. Leasts generally show a straighter back profile, are not as chesty and at times seem to be thickest at the belly rather than thickest in the upper torso like a Western. Beware that the torso profile is at best a subjective feature when sorting these two species and the way the feathers are laying can easily alter our perception of body shape.
Additionally, there are a couple of behavioral clues that may be useful. Westerns are more likely to be out in the water and feeding belly deep, although the photos here show that either species will feed this way. Leasts are more inclined to feed up on mud completely out of the water and away from the water's edge. When feeding in the water, Westerns seem to tip forward more and I think they are more likely to have their tails pointing upward. Leasts tend to have more horizontal feeding posture, particularly in very shallow water or on dry land. They often squat slightly with bent legs, while Westerns tend to stand more straight-legged and tip forward at a steeper angle.
Hopefully, these tips will be of use to folks who are still learning the small calidrids, particularly along the West Coast of North America, where Least and Western are the predominant "peeps." However, there is no substitute for spending hours watching these birds feed and interact in mixed flocks, as this is the best way to discover the visual or behavioral clues that consistently work for you. In my own case, I tend to see shape, posture, and overall proportions before I notice color or other aspects relating to plumage. Others may find that they first notice differences in plumage or soft part coloration. If you've found useful field marks not mentioned in this article, I invite you to share them as a comment.