I always tell people who are thinking about birds to get a plan on how to look at them, so you don’t skip straight to color and miss all the important stuff: Size, shape, behavior, probability and then patterns of color. Today, let’s look at the Sanderling using these characteristics.
Sanderlings are smallish birds, about eight inches from the base of the bill to the tip of the tail. You can say Cardinal-sized, 20 percent smaller than an American Robin, and about the same percentage bigger than a House Sparrow. Working out size is tricky without practice and particularly without a few birds for size comparison. Sanderlings are quite often loners and have the beach to themselves.
They are chunky birds, with a rounded undercarriage, compact with a relatively short neck. Their legs are quite short, though by heck, can they move! They are a blur when they get motoring. Their bills are fairly short, about the width of their head, quite stout and appear straight or very slightly downturned. For a compact bird, everything seems proportional and balanced to my eyes. But that’s my eyes, and everyone has to get a sense of proportionality through their own mind’s eye.
When it comes to behavior, I just love these little firecrackers. They are all action and only rarely slow down for a break. If you don’t think you know them, think of the beach walk you took in Cape May, Wildwood or, in fact, just about anywhere. It doesn’t matter whether it was winter, summer, spring, or fall; there are invariably some of these beauties around. They are typically in flocks from a few to a hundred. They line the tides edge, chasing in after the waves as they recede back out to sea. Their little legs go like a bat-out-of-hell, lines of them in unison as if there is a race. Then they slow down to grab a few morsels churned up by the tide. They look around quickly to survey how long they have before the wave chases them back out, as if an intruder to their territory. Off they all run again in sync, slowing down after a while, knowing the wave has given up its chase. They have a couple of seconds to get their bearings again. Do they want to change positions with one of the other starters? Some do, and before you know it, they are scampering off again. Oh, what a game they play. Yes, I am jealous!
Late summer, fall, and through the early part of the winter is the best time to watch. In spring, most are on the Delaware Bay feeding on Horseshoe Crab eggs. Here they are mixed in with the smaller Semipalmated Sandpipers, larger Red Knot and similar-sized Ruddy Turnstone. They run in and out of the water here but also dig for eggs and go clambering into upside-down Horseshoe Crab shells. They even seem to take more breathers here, standing higher up the beach, in packs. Their goal is to double their body weight for their long journey north.
Sanderling breed in the high-Arctic. After gorging on the spring crab eggs, they leave, mostly in late May, on their long haul to the breeding grounds. Their chunky bodies can be thought of as fuel tanks, made for carrying lots of fuel, and designed to handle whatever comes their way. When they arrive on their breeding grounds after a long flight, it is often tough going with cold weather and little food and ground that may still be partly frozen. Having some surplus fuel in their tanks is often vital if they are to be successful breeding.
This is a different story by late June and particularly July when the reason for going there is instantly apparent. There are clouds of them everywhere. You think about them at dusk, very negatively, because they bite. But mossies, or mosquitos, are the savior of many bird species. It’s all about the kids, right? The glut of them as a food source is the primary reason many species of birds traverse the world just so there is an endless supply of food for the young’uns.
Of course, the Sanderling travels the world living in very different places. Sounds exciting to me! However, they must adapt. In winter, the beaches are gray and brown, and so they molt, or change their clothes, to blend perfectly into this environment. In the summer, their world on the Arctic Tundra is a mosaic of colors created by flowers, mosses, other plants, and soils. Being cryptic and blending in is a key component to survival but how do you blend into so many colors? The answer is to be many colors, and the Sanderling is just that. In spring they molt many of their feathers, mostly the big obvious ones on their back and head. They are extremely variable in color from gray, to brown, orange, and black. No two are the same. These colors are a far cry from the relatively uniform gray of winter for blending into beaches. So, when you think of color as the key to bird identification, think again.
When talking about birds, I tend to think of sound as another science. In winter they call a lot as they feed, and particularly when they fly. Describing sound is almost impossible – thank goodness for all the apps today. They give a sharp, chattery ‘chink’. On the breeding grounds all shorebirds have very musical, complicated, and beautiful songs that sound quite similar to one another.
Birds, like people, have personality and everything is for a reason, whether we know what that reason is or not. It is the learning of their lifestyles and the voyeuristic aspect of birding that is fun for me. Counting, names and colors, that is for another group of people who get their enjoyment from birds. So, as you sit on the beach in Cape May watching these beauties, just get in the moment and think about the shared commonalities you have with the Sanderling. For me, we have so much in common starting with size and shape and changing lifestyles. Their life seems a lot simpler than mine, but I wonder if it really is.