Not having ever been a birder along oceanic beaches (or extensive beaches of any kind, for that matter) before moving to Florida a year ago, I’ve never been particularly good with shorebirds – identifying, counting or even just seeing. That has had to change, however, with my new proximity to miles of some of the most amazing beaches in the country and the world, with diverse birds visiting the shores year-round. One I can nearly always rely on, however, is this week’s featured bird – the familiar and widespread sanderling.
Scientific Name: Caladris alba
Scientific Family: Scolopacidae (Sandpipers, Snipes and Phalaropes)
Habitat: A wide range of beaches from sandy to somewhat pebbly, as well as mudflats and similar open coastal areas such as bays and estuaries. Breeding habitat is wet, gravely tundra in the high Arctic region, though not always along the coast.
Range: Found worldwide in appropriate coastal and Arctic breeding areas, from Greenland, Canada and Siberia to Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, as well as all points between. Absent from Antarctica. Easily co-exists on busy beaches with other shorebirds, wading birds and beachgoers of the two-legged type.
These plucky little sandpipers may be widespread and easily seen everywhere, but their relatively bland appearance and lack of strong, distinct markings can make them a challenge to properly identify if you aren’t used to them. Their upperparts range from pale, muddled gray to mottled black and brown depending on age and season, though mature birds always show a small black wedge at the shoulder joint adjacent to the breast. In non-breeding birds, the underparts are plain white, with just a faint smudgy collar extending on the sides of the neck but not crossing the breast entirely. Breeding birds have a much darker head and throat with a red-brown hue, but their underparts remain plain white. The legs and feet are black, as is the thin bill. The bill can look thicker toward the base. In flight, a broad white stripe the length of the wing is easily seen.
What I first noticed about these birds is their overall small size – though not quite totally teeny – and their amusing, energetic behavior. These birds feed right at the wave line, munching on insects, crustaceans, mollusks and whatever else they pick from the sand, yet at the same time they run from incoming waves with a passion, always dashing away from the water as it approaches, sometimes with only an inch or two to spare. Their steps are light and quick, and they are very smooth runners, not flailing or bobbing as they go. When a wave is about to catch them, they may quickly take flight with rapid wing beats, staying just above the water as they move down the beach to a new spot for foraging. Only rarely do they actually step into the water, and then not generally for long.
I enjoy long walks on the beach quite regularly – often picking up litter to protect not only birds, but also sea turtles and other marine life – and I always smile when sanderlings are part of those walks. Of course, they don’t trust me any more than they trust the waves, but seeing them always reminds me to dip my toes in the water – even if they won’t.