We studied: (1) concentrations and fatty acid compositions of plasma non-esterified fatty acids, neutral lipids, and phospholipids, and (2) fatty acid composition of flight muscle phospholipids in wintering, premigratory, and spring and fall migrating western sandpipers ( Calidris mauri). Plasma neutral lipid and phospholipid levels were elevated in migrants, reflecting high rates of fat deposition. An important role of phospholipids in fattening is suggested by the fact that the amount of fatty acids in plasma phospholipids was similar to, or in spring as much as twice, that of neutral lipids. Changes in the ratio of plasma neutral lipids to phospholipids may indicate seasonal changes in triacylglycerol stores of invertebrate prey. Monounsaturation and total unsaturation of plasma neutral lipids and phospholipids increased during migration. Muscle phospholipids were more monounsaturated in spring and fall, but total unsaturation was reduced in fall. Arachidonic acid [20:4(n-6)] was especially abundant in muscle phospholipids in winter (29%) and declined during migration (19-22%), contributing to a decline in the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids. The abundance of plasma phospholipids and variability of neutral lipid to phospholipid ratio indicates that measurement of plasma phospholipids will improve methods for assessment of fattening rates of birds. The functional significance of changes in muscle phospholipids is unclear, but may relate to depletion of essential n-6 fatty acids during exercise.