Stints are the smallest of the migratory waders, barely the size of a sparrow. One species of stint – the red-necked – is an annual migrant to New Zealand, and Lake Ellesmere is the single most important New Zealand site for these diminutive waders. Occasionally a different species of stint arrives with these birds, providing a challenge for local birdwatchers, as the stints (or ‘peeps’) includes several very similar species pairs. One such pair is the ‘yellow-legged’ stints: the long-toed stint from Eurasia and the least sandpiper from America. Each has been recorded from New Zealand on one or two occasions, but there are several additional records of stints with yellow legs from New Zealand that were not able to be assigned to species. The two accepted records of long-toed stints were birds at Lake Ellesmere in August-September 1997 and December 2000. About 200 long-toed stints reach Australia each year.
The long-toed stint is a tiny delicate wader with pale yellow-green legs. Its markings are very like a miniature sharp-tailed sandpiper, with a rufous cap, prominent pale supercilium, variegated rufous, black and buff back and wings, speckled breast and white underparts.
Voice a soft rippling brrt-chrrup or a short sharp tik tik tik
Similar species: at first glance, the long-toed stint could be mistaken for a red-necked stint, being of similar size. The long-toed stint is darker above and brighter. The main separation from the red-necked stint is the colour of the legs – the long-toed stint having yellow-green legs and the red-necked stint black legs.
Once the leg colour has been established, separation from the very similar least sandpiper is important and careful study is needed. They both have similar coloured legs and colouring but the long-toed stint is darker above. They differ in shape: the long-toed stint is longer-legged and longer-necked than the compact least sandpiper, having more of the appearance of a sharp-tailed sandpiper (although sharp-tailed sandpiper is 60% larger). A subtle difference between long-toed stint and least sandpiper is that the mantle of the long toed stint appears striped (having dark central stripes and parallel rufous edges), while that of least sandpiper mantle appears scalloped (as the pale edges are narrower and curve toward one another at the rear). Also, long-toed stint scapulars and tertials are brown with broad complete rufous fringes enhancing the striped effect. Least sandpiper scapulars are much darker-centred, the outer and inner fringes differently coloured giving a black blotched appearance. Long-toed stint consistently shows a reddish cap, whereas very few least sandpipers are as bright. Long-toed stints may have paler base to the lower mandible, where this is consistently dark in least sandpiper. As their name suggests, long-toed stints do have longer toes, with the middle toe longer than the bill (cf. similar length to bill in the least sandpiper), but this is difficult to observe in the field.
Distribution and habitat
Long-toed stints breed in subarctic Siberia, and migrate to non-breeding areas in South-east Asia and, less commonly, Australia, where around 200 arrive each year. They can be found in saline, brackish or freshwater habitats.
The global population of long-toed stints is estimated to number more than 25,000 individuals.
New Zealand records
New Zealand’s first long-toed stint was seen among red-necked stints at Lake Ellesmere on 31 August and 25 September 1997. The second bird was seen and photographed by a single observer at the same site on 6, 7 & 16 December 2000, with the third bird also at Lake Ellesmere on 24 December 2022.
Behaviour and ecology
Long-toed stints breed during June-July as isolated pairs near pools, in boggy wetlands, or on mountain tundra south of 50° North. Their long toes and light bodyweight allow them to walk on floating vegetation. They are mildly gregarious, foraging singly or in small groups, and rarely up to 50 birds together.
Long-toed stints peck active prey from the substrate. The two New Zealand birds were feeding alongside red-necked stints.
Hayman, P.; Marchant, J.; Prater, A.J. 1986. Shorebirds. An identification guide to waders of the world. Christopher Helm, London.
Higgins, P.J.; Davies, S.J.J.F. (eds) 1996. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 3, snipe to pigeons. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Miskelly, C.M.; Crossland, A.C.; Saville, I.; Southey, I.; Tennyson, A.J.D.; Bell, E.A. 2023. Vagrant and extra-limital bird records accepted by the Birds New Zealand Records Appraisal Committee 2021–2022. Notornis 70: 60–73.
Paulson, D.R. 1993. Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver.
Petch, S.; Hill, C.; Allen, N. 2002. First record of a long-toed stint (Calidris subminuta) in New Zealand. Notornis 49: 185-186.
Petch, S. 2013 [updated 2023]. Long-toed stint. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
- Breeding season
- Egg laying dates