Winter Peeps in Duval, Nassau, and St. Johns County, FL

Peeps are the little birds that dart along a shoreline. They often intermingle and look similar. They vary in size, but often only slightly.

From left to right: Wilson’s Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling

When identifying these birds, I look at the legs first, then bill length.

Very short bill = tiny and chick-like
Short bill = less than the length of the head
Medium bill = As long as or slightly longer than the length of the head

Legs and medium-bill both black
(Dunlin, Red Knot, Sanderling, or Western Sandpiper)

Back is gray or buff (Dunlin, Red Knot, or Sanderling)

  • Body 1.5x the length of head and bill; wings cover tail; downcurved bill; absent or indistinct eyebrow – Dunlin
  • Body 2x the length of head and bill; underside speckled with arrowheads; eyebrow; bill straight or mostly-straight – Red Knot
  • Plain white underside wraps shoulder; straight bill – Sanderling

Back is brown or rust (Western Sandpiper or Dunlin)

  • No eyebrow; white belly – Western Sandpiper
  • Pronounced eyebrow; speckled throat and underbody – Dunlin

Belly is plain white (Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, or Dunlin)

  • Throat bright white – Sanderling (gray back may be plain, speckled, or patterned with black; there may be a line of black outlining the wing edge)
  • Throat flecked – Western Sandpiper (bill straight or barely downwardly curved) or Dunlin (bill downwardly curved)

White eyebrow

  • Extends to back of head – Western Sandpiper (body gray-brown or a mix of brown/black/rust)
  • Extends to eye – Short, plump body; wings cover tail = Dunlin; Longer body with visible tail = Red Knot
  • Soft and indistinct – Sanderling (a line of black may outline the wing edge; white belly wraps shoulder)

Legs are yellow/orange
(Piping Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Ruddy Turnstone,
Least Sandpiper, Purple Sandpiper, or Spotted Sandpiper)

Bill very short and orange-and-black (Piping or Semipalmated Plover)

  • Body almost white; blends with sand – Piping Plover
  • Body brown – Semipalmated Plover (Wilson’s Plovers look similar and the two may be found together – Wilson’s bill is all black)

Bill is short and black – Ruddy Turnstone (bold, black chest-band)

Bill is medium-length (Least, Purple, or Spotted Sandpiper)

  • Bill is black – Least Sandpiper (body brown-gray and may be tinged with brown/rust; soft white eyebrow extends to back of head)
  • Bill has yellow base – Purple Sandpiper (head dark gray, or brown with fine streaking; belly white or streaked; color ranges from brown to dark-gray)
  • Bill is mostly yellow – Spotted Sandpiper (head brown with white eyeline; underbody white or spotted)

Gray or pink legs with a short black bill
(Killdeer or Wilson’s Plover)
Note that gray or pink legs can appear pale-yellow under some lighting conditions.

  • Big red eye – Killdeer (bill pointed; two black breast bands)
  • Black eye – Wilson’s Plover (bill stout and gull-like; resembles and often accompanies Semipalmated Plovers, but Wilson’s bill is all black)

Even when you’ve learned what to look for, it is easy to misidentify peeps.

Red Knot (misidentified as Dunlin)

In winter plumage, the Red-Knot has a pronounced eyebrow. It also has flecking above the legs and beneath the rump. The bill is straight (or mostly straight).

Remember that birds can look plump or thin regardless of species. A bird that is plump may be preparing for migration, while a thin one may be recovering from its journey. On a cold day, birds fluff their feathers, which makes them appear fuller. This bird was photographed on a cold, windy day.

Dunlin. Image by Dr. Georg Wietschorke from Pixabay


In winter plumage, the Dunlin has an absent or indistinct eyebrow. The belly above the legs and beneath the tail feathers is often pure white. However, flecking can extend onto the underbody. When this happens, look at the flecks themselves. The flecks on the Dunlin resemble spots, whereas the flecks on the Red Knot form arrowheads pointing tailward.

References and Credits

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Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She has a passion for day-hiking and nature, and also enjoys writing. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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