Breeding plumage
© Gregg Thompson
  • Breeding plumage
  • Breeding plumage
  • Breeding plumage. Note: barred breast/belly.

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Wandering Tattler

Tringa incana
This is a large and highly varied group of birds that do not have many outward similarities. Most are water birds that feed on invertebrates or small aquatic creatures. The order is well represented in Washington, with seven families:
This large and diverse family of shorebirds is made up mostly of northern breeders that migrate long distances. Their highly migratory nature leads them astray fairly frequently, and rarities often show up outside their normal range. Many of these mostly coastal birds forage in relation to the tides, rather than the time of day. They use a variety of foraging techniques, but the most common techniques are picking food from the ground or water, or probing into wet sand or mud. Those that probe generally have sensitive bills that open at the tips. Most members of this group eat small invertebrates. Many make dramatic, aerial display-flights during courtship. Nesting practices vary, but both parents typically help raise the young. Clutch size is usually four, and both parents generally incubate. The young are precocial and leave the nest within a day of the hatching of the last chick. Most feed themselves, although the parents generally tend the young for a varying period of time. The female typically abandons the group first, leaving the male to care for the young until they are independent.
Fairly common coastal migrant.
  • Species of Concern

General Description

The Wandering Tattler is the only shorebird in this region that is plain gray above and heavily barred below. Its bill is of medium length for a shorebird, and it has short, yellow legs. Wandering Tattlers seen in Washington are typically in breeding plumage. Juveniles and adults in non-breeding plumage look similar to adults, but lack the barring below. In flight, the Wandering Tattler appears entirely gray above, with a solid gray tail and gray wings.


Wandering Tattlers nest in the far north by rocky mountain streams. During migration and winter, they inhabit rocky coasts, reefs, jetties, and breakwaters.


Wandering Tattlers are basically solitary birds, on the ground and especially in flight. They bob and teeter while feeding, and move nervously and quickly over rocks, probing for active prey on the surface. On the breeding grounds, they walk or wade along streams to find food. The Wandering Tattler gets part of its name from its practice of giving alarm calls when perceived threats are nearby, alerting other shorebirds to the danger. Its call is a series of clear, hollow whistles, all on one pitch.


Wandering Tattlers eat insects, crustaceans, worms, and small animals that scramble among the rocks.


The nest of the Wandering Tattler is located on the ground in a hollow in rocks or gravel, usually near a stream. It is a shallow depression that may or may not be lined with small twigs, rootlets, or leaves. Both parents help incubate the 4 eggs for 23-25 days. Once hatched, the young leave the nest within a day and can feed themselves immediately. Both parents tend the young, although within a week or two, one parent leaves. The remaining parent tends the young until they are independent.

Migration Status

Long-distance migrants, Wandering Tattlers travel from Alaska and northwest Canada to the southern California coast and beyond, with some birds crossing the Pacific Ocean to spend the winter in Australia and on islands in the South Pacific.

Conservation Status

The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates the population of Wandering Tattlers to number 10,000 birds, with half of that number breeding in Canada. They are widely dispersed across their breeding and wintering range. This distribution makes the population difficult to survey, but probably also helps their numbers to remain stable.

When and Where to Find in Washington

Wandering Tattlers are common migrants on the coast of Washington. They are rare in Puget Sound and other parts of Washington. In the spring, they are common from mid-April to mid-May. They are usually gone from the Washington coast by the second week of May. The post-breeding migration is more protracted, with adults common on Washington's rocky outer coast from mid-July into August. By the second week of August, most of the Wandering Tattlers coming through are juveniles, and are common into October.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest Coast FF FFFR
Puget Trough
North Cascades
West Cascades
East Cascades
Canadian Rockies
Blue Mountains
Columbia Plateau

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List
Yellow List

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern