Our Bird Neighbors – Sanderling

(Calidris arenaria)

Called also: SURF SNIPE; RUDDY PLOVER; BEACH BIRD Length—7 to 8 inches.

Male and Female—In summer : Upper parts varied blackish brown, reddish chestnut, and grayish white, most feathers tipped with the latter; wing coverts ashy brown, broadly tipped with white, making a bar across wings; tail brownish gray, margined with white, the outer feathers nearly white; throat and breast washed with pale cinnamon and spotted with blackish; other under parts, immaculate white. Bill, about as long as head, stout, straight, black; broader at the tip than at its slightly concave centre. Feet with three toes only; no hind toe; scales of tarsus transverse. In winter: The chestnut in upper plumage replaced by gray, or mixed with brown and gray in the spring; under parts pure white. Immature birds in autumn lack the chestnut tint and are more evenly mottled; brownish ash or blackish and white above, pure white below; rarely with a spot on breast.

Range—Nearly cosmopolitan, nesting in the Arctic regions or near them; south in winter as far as Chile and Patagonia.

Season—Spring and autumn visitor; March to June; September, October.

Commonest of the beach birds everywhere, the sanderlings —for it is impossible to think of them except in flocks—run about like a company of busy ants on our coast and sometimes inland too, near large bodies of water that are followed in the migrations. Gleaning from the sand flats with an eagerness suggesting starvation, their heads pushed forward, alert, nimble-footed, nervously quick in every movement, the birds’ every energy while with us appears to be concentrated on the business of picking up a living as if they never expected to see food again.

Among the semipalmated, the least, and other sandpipers they often hunt with, sanderlings may be readily picked out by the attitude of the head and their fearful eagerness. Impressions of their three toes (a plover characteristic) in the wet sand, at low tide, cover a good feeding ground like fret work. Chasing out after the receding breakers, picking up the minute shell fish, marine insects, shrimps, seeds of sedges, etc., strewn over the flats, the active little troop outstrips the frothing waves on the back-ward race with marvelous agility. Rarely, indeed, does the curling foam reach the immaculate white under plumage; no combing breaker ever drenches the sanderlings unawares, how-ever absorbing their dinner appears to be; yet deep water has no terrors for them. Wading is a frequent diversion, and swimming becomes the safest resort for wounded birds.

Bay men, who habitually carry guns and shoot at every-thing wearing feathers, tell you that sanderlings are wary little creatures, never so gentle and confiding as many sandpipers that may be raked from a few yards; but possibly if these men carried only field glasses, and kept up a reassuring Peet-meet whistle as they slowly approached a busy flock—a possibility to make a longshoreman smile—the alleged timidity would be found to disappear and the birds to remain. Startle them, and rising and moving like one bird toward the sea, calling shrilly as they fly, on they go along the coast line no further than a few hundred yards, their bodies turning and twisting in the air, their under parts glistening where the sunlight strikes them. Instantly, on alighting, the flock begins to feed again. Follow these birds to Florida in winter, and one finds apparently the same ones still feeding. Captain Feilden, the naturalist in General Greely’s Arctic expedition, reported sanderlings in flocks of knots and turnstones, and a nest in latitude 82° 33′ north. It was on a gravel ridge above the sea, and the eggs (three or four light olive brown, finely spotted and speckled with darker) were deposited in a slight depression among ground willow plants, the lining of the nest consisting of a few withered leaves and dry catkins.