For the Birds Radio Program: Sanderlings

Original Air Date: Nov. 3, 1997

This program is about the cute little sandpipers that run along the ocean’s edge. 3:51 (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


Last week I went to Cape May, New Jersey, on a brief birding adventure. The weather was really junky—cold, windy, and rainy—and since I was there on a late Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, there weren’t many knowledgeable people around to tell me how to find all the famous spots at Cape May, but I was with a friend who’s pretty new to birding so we were happy to make do with the birds we came upon our own.

Our first stop was at a cool little cove where some Sanderlings were running about on the edge of the water. Sanderlings are one of the most endearing of shorebirds. They’re pretty in winter plumage—the whitest of all sandpipers, about 7 or 8 inches long, with a wingspread of 15 inches. Their wings sport a lovely wing stripe and black wrist, which was especially noticeable on the ones here. Sanderlings are among the busiest of all shorebirds, running this way and that along the edge of the water, and are unique among their family in completely lacking a hind toe. This makes them seem to lean forward a bit, enhancing the illusion of hurrying as they run this way and that along the water.

Sanderlings breed in the Siberian and Canadian Arctic, and are a common migrant along oceanic beaches, where for a time in spring and fall they are the most abundant of shorebirds. Most of them will keep going until they reach southernmost South America and Africa, and even Australia and New Zealand, but a few do overwinter out along the oceans of North America. We get them along Lake Superior—the first ones I ever saw were on the beaches of Port Wing—but in nowhere near as large numbers near as large numbers as they’re seeing along the ocean.

Sanderlings have beautiful plumage, yet they seem more cute than pretty as they run along the edge of the waves like clockwork toys, chasing the water as it recedes and then in turn being chased by the water as it flows back in. They seem always in a panic as they run about, as if they were saying, “Oh, no! There goes the water!” “Oh, no! Here comes the water!” And if one of them is cute, imagine a whole flock of them all in motion, all in a panic, all at once.

Sanderlings seem tireless, and never seem to stop moving, but they aren’t quite the avian version of the Energizer Bunny. Their seemingly boundless energy does eventually run out and they must sleep. Along the ocean, high tides flow over the most productive areas, and so sandpipers of most species do most of their feeding when tides are low. Like several other shorebirds, Sanderlings usually rest and sleep twice a day, during the two high tides, and then they feed actively when tides are low, even at night. They sleep right on the beaches, and even though they lack a hind toe, they manage to balance on one foot, head resting on their back. Like most birds, Sanderlings are wary even as they sleep, especially in daytime, and the few times I’ve ever encountered a group of them sleeping, they woke up and flew off before I was close enough to enjoy the spectacle.

I’ve seen thousands of Sanderlings over the years, so these were hardly lifers, yet my trip to Cape May was much, much richer for seeing them. We humans have been depleting many oceanic resources for a long time, but I hope there will always be enough tiny crustaceans on the world’s ocean beaches to keep Sanderlings here on the planet where they belong.