Unlike many migratory shorebirds, in Australia the Wood Sandpiper shuns coastal mudflats, instead occurring in shallow, freshwater wetlands, usually where there is grass or aquatic plants protruding above the water, and often with trees and much fallen timber. It is this latter preference which provides the species with its name. The species feeds by wading in belly-deep water, pecking at insects on the water’s surface, or sweeping its bill from side to side under water, or probing the mud, sometimes with its head submerged beneath the water.
The Wood Sandpiper is a small slim wader, dark grey-brown above, with light flecks or spots, and a white underbody. The light breast is mottled as well. The legs are yellow-green. There is a distinct white brow line. The flight is strong, with distinctive clipped wing beats. In flight, a square white rump is revealed and there are no wing bars.
The call is a shrill, whistled ‘chiff-iff-iff’ and the alarm call is a sharper ‘chip’ repeated rapidly.
Wood Sandpipers are more numerous in the north than the south of Australia and are also found in New Guinea, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and South-east Asia. They breed widely across the north of Europe and Asia, mostly in Scandinavia, Baltic countries and Russia. They are the most abundant migratory wader in non-coastal areas of Asia.
Wood Sandpipers are seen in small flocks or singly on inland shallow freshwater wetlands, often with other waders. They prefer ponds and pools with emergent reeds and grass, surrounded by tall plants or dead trees and fallen timber.
The Wood Sandpiper is wary and nervous and will burst into flight if disturbed, zig-zagging off and calling loudly, then gliding gracefully to ground again.
Wood Sandpipers feed mainly on aquatic insects and their larvae and molluscs in moist or dry mud. They high-step daintily through shallow water, probing in mud or picking at the surface. They also swim well and may feed by sweeping their bill from side to side under water.
Wood Sandpipers nest in a variety of habitats in their northern breeding grounds, including pine forests, open tundra, marshes or bogs. The nest is a shallow depression lined with grass and leaves, sometimes even in the old nest of a songbird. The display during breeding is a switchback flight in the air, then a glide back to ground with short trilling calls.