Sanderlings run tirelessly along sandy beaches, rushing down to feed as the waves recede and sprinting back, seemingly hoping to keep their feet dry. Their comical antics and non-descript looks belie an impressive avian that makes remarkable migrations between Arctic nesting grounds and overwintering grounds as distant as the southern tips of South America and South Africa.
Sanderling in summer plumage
Sanderling foraging for food in the seaweed
Sanderling in-flight over the open sea
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
18cm to 21cm
36cm to 39cm
40g to 100g
The sanderling is a pale, chunky wader with a straight black bill. They have black legs and pure white underparts at all times of the year. Birdwatchers in most parts of the world are likely to see them in their non-breeding plumage when they have silvery gray upperparts.
In the spring, breeding birds develop rusty brown upper parts with black mottling that covers the back, head, and breast. Sanderlings display contrasting dark upper wings with conspicuous white centers and dark tail feathers in flight. These birds are unique among sandpipers in that they lack a backward-facing toe, having three forward-facing digits instead.
Female Sanderlings are similar to males, although somewhat duller in their rufous breeding plumage. Juveniles appear similar to non-breeding adults but have more contrasting checkered upperparts.
Sanderling standing on top of a boulder
The Sanderling has a total length of 18 to 21 centimeters or 7 to 8 inches. Females are generally larger than males.
They weigh 40 to 100 grams or 1½ to 3½ ounces. These birds show remarkable variation in weight at different seasons. They are at their heaviest just before migrating north to nest and can double their weight in just two weeks in preparation for the journey.
Sanderlings have a wingspan of 36 to 39 centimeters or 14 to 15 inches.
Sanderling walking along a sandy beach
Sanderlings perform soft, pipping calls, creating a twittering effect when flocking. Birdwatchers who visit their Arctic breeding grounds may hear their prolonged croaking and squeaking songs.
Sanderling performing soft, pipping call whilst feeding
Sanderlings eat small marine invertebrates like worms and crabs in the winter. They find their food washed up on the sand or by probing with their stout bills. On their nesting grounds, they switch to a diet of small insects like flies and mosquitoes but also eat plant matter when food is scarce.
Sanderling chicks hatch at an advanced stage of development and usually leave the nest within their first twelve hours. They follow their parents to good feeding grounds and begin to catch their own insect prey within just two days.
Sanderling feeding on the shore
Sanderlings are most at home along exposed sandy beaches with a gradual slope. They also visit mudflats, rocky shores, and estuaries, and migrating birds will visit freshwater lakes when migrating over land.
The Sanderling has an immense global distribution covering the coastlines of every continent except for distant Antarctica. They are most at home in the intertidal zone, although they may visit inland waterbodies thousands of miles from the coast on migration.
Sanderlings have no fixed address. These traveling birds live on sandy beaches worldwide, spending almost all their time on the ground. They cover immense distances on migration and can spend hours and even days in flight. Sanderlings do not swim, although they may dive into the water when pursued by a predator.
Sanderlings are reasonably common birds that most beachgoers will spot at one time or another. Their population was estimated at 620,000 to 700,000 individuals in 2015, although their vast range means they occur in fairly low densities in some areas.
Sanderlings can be seen on sandy beaches around practically the entire coastline of North America. Look out for small flocks of these energetic winter migrants along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
Sanderlings occur on sandy shores throughout the United Kingdom. The only places you are not likely to see them are along the West Coast of Scotland and the Cornwall coastline in the southwest.
Flock of Sanderlings taking-off from the rocks
Sanderlings have a maximum recorded lifespan of 17 years, although their average life expectancy is closer to seven.
Peregrine Falcons and Merlins are major predators of adult Sanderlings, while Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers are significant predators of eggs and chicks on the nesting grounds.
Sanderlings are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in the United Kingdom, by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in North America, and internationally by the Bern Convention.
Sanderlings are not endangered, although their population is thought to be in decline. They are ranked as a ‘Least Concern’ species on the IUCN Red List due to their vast range and large population, although they are difficult to assess due to their remote nesting grounds and scattered wintering population.
Sanderling running along the sandy beach
Sanderlings nest in the tundra of the high Arctic in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Svalbard, and Siberia. They nest on the ground, at low altitudes on open stony plains with low vegetation. Their nest is a shallow hollow in the ground, thinly lined with plant material.
Sanderlings nest in the height of summer in June and July. Their eggs hatch after 23 to 27 days, and they are ready to leave their breeding grounds by early September.
Sanderlings lay three or four eggs, each measuring approximately 36 millimeters long and 25 millimeters wide. Their eggs are lightly speckled and usually olive-green or brownish.
Sanderlings do not mate for life. They generally form monogamous pairs in the nesting season, but some females will mate with several males.
Sanderling nest with two eggs
Sanderlings are territorial when nesting and defend areas several hundred meters wide. Intruders in the nesting territory are chased or attacked. They are more gregarious in the non-breeding season when flocks may join other waders like Knots, Dunlins, and Turnstones.
They are feisty birds and often attempt to steal food from other birds in their flock, particularly meals that are too big to swallow at once. Some birds have an anti-social streak and aggressively defend a small feeding area of their own.
Sanderlings sleep on the nest while incubating. In the non-breeding season, these birds roost standing or squatting on the floor above the high-tide mark in tight flocks, doing their utmost to find a sheltered spot among the crowd.
Small flock of Sanderlings resting on the beach
The Sanderling is a complete migrant. These small shorebirds undertake some of the longest migrations of any bird on the planet, some traveling an incredible 6,000 miles or more between summer breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra and sandy beaches in the Southern Hemisphere.
Sanderlings are native to North America. They breed and overwinter on the continent.
Sanderlings are native to the United Kingdom, where they occur as a common winter visitor.
Sanderling in-flight over the ocean
Dunlin and Sanderling appear very similar in their non-breeding plumage, although the Dunlin has a longer, slightly down-curved bill. Both species develop rich reddish upperparts ahead of the breeding season, but the Dunlin differs in having a large black belly patch.
A flock of sanderlings is known as a ‘grain,’ which is an appropriate name for a bird that spends so much time on the sand!
The word sanderling comes from an Old English word that means sand ploughman.
The Eurasian woodcock spends days roosting in dense, damp woodland undergrowth, and evenings and nights foraging in open fields as well as woods for worms and beetles.
The UKs breeding population of Wood Sandpipers are limited to an area of swampy marshland in the Highlands of northern Scotland, although they are far more commonly sighted in passage during their spring and autumn migrations as they make brief stopovers in southern and eastern England.
A long-legged wader, closely related to the curlew, the Eurasian whimbrel, has small breeding populations established on the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney. Migrating whimbrels may be spotted along Britain’s coastlines as they undertake long-distance migration flights between Arctic tundra breeding grounds and wintering territories in Africa.
One of the smallest wading bird species to visit British shores, the Temminck’s stint is now classed as a ‘former breeder’ in the UK, with breeding pairs no longer regularly observed. Passage migrants may still be seen, particularly on the eastern coast in May.
Spotted redshanks have a distinctive black spotted summer plumage that UK residents are unlikely to see in birds on British shores, as the species is only a rare winter visitor or spotted in migration passage. Several hundred spotted redshanks make brief stopovers on British coastal wetlands each year, en-route to and from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.
The Snipe is a common but shy wader seen throughout the United Kingdom. These cryptic birds make a living by probing marshy ground for invertebrates in the mud below.
Named for its red-orange legs, the Redshank is a common and noisy wader of the United Kingdom. These wary birds are present throughout the year, although they are most numerous in the winter non-breeding season.
A hardy wading bird that thrives in the bleak Arctic tundra landscapes of northeastern Canada, Greenland and Iceland, purple sandpipers arrive on wintering grounds along the northeastern coast of the United States and the UK each autumn, to forage for molluscs and crustaceans on rocky shores and coastal headlands.
Pectoral Sandpipers are mid-sized waders that breed on wet tundra landscapes across the northernmost extremes of North America and the Siberian Arctic. Their epic annual migration return trips of up to 30,000 km are one of the most lengthy of any bird species, similar to those undertaken by the Arctic tern.
One of the world’s smallest wading birds, little stints cover enormous distances on their annual migrations between breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle and winter territories in southern Africa and South Asia. A handful of individual birds spend winter in the UK, and records of vagrant birds reaching North America are occasionally reported.
Highly camouflaged and elusive, the jack snipe is a small wading bird that spends winters on mudflats and freshwater wetlands across Britain. Smaller and less common than the UK’s other native snipe, the common snipe, jack snipes are harder to spot due to their tendency to crouch low and remain hidden among reeds.
The grey phalarope’s winter and summer plumage are so distinctly different that the species is known by an entirely different name in the US. In the UK, the bird’s name reflects its post-breeding plumage, which is dominated by light grey and white. However, in the US, it is known as the red phalarope, after the more vibrant orange-red plumage seen during the breeding season.
Green sandpipers are stocky shorebirds similar to the common sandpiper. They spend winters at inland freshwater wetlands in southern Europe and northern and central Africa after raising their young in swampy forests and wet woodland landscapes across northern Europe.
The Dunlin is a small wading bird from the sandpiper family Scolopacidae. Dunlins breed across North America and northern Europe, and Asia and are one of the most widely distributed wading birds, with ten subspecies.
Identified as being from a group of birds known as Waders, within North America they are generally referred to as Shorebirds. This monotypic species, a long distance migrant, is considered to have an Amber Conservation Status otherwise known as Near Threatened.
The largest European wading bird, the Eurasian curlew is easy to identify with its elongated bow-shaped bill and spindly legs. In winter groups of curlews known as ‘curfews’ forage together in coastal wetlands, and up to 66,000 pairs breed in the UK and are resident all year round.
Belonging to a group of birds generally called waders or shorebirds, the common sandpiper prefers freshwater habitats as opposed to saltwater locations.
An impressive, proud looking wader with particularly fine summer plumage which migrates south from its northern breeding grounds from July to October, returning for the summer from late February through April.
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