Sanderling Fact File
‘A tame silent bird is the Sanderling, frequenting sandy seashores, where it feeds indifferently in company with waders of other species (such as Dunlins and Ringed Plovers), by itself or with others of its own kind.’ – British Birds with their Nests and Eggs Vol V. Order Limicolæ. Rev. Henry H. Slater 1898
English; Beach Bird, Beach Plover, Bull peep, curwillet, ruddy plover, Sanderling Plover, sand lark, surf snipe, towilly, white snipe, Whitey.
Other languages; Arenero, Bécasseau sanderling, Petite Maubèche grise (Brisson 1760), Hunakai, Mistchaychekiskaweshish, Putilla, Sanderla (Iceland), Pibydd y Tywod (Welsh Sand Piper), Akpaksrukti (Iñupiat Lit. runner)
Current Scientific Name: Calidris alba (Pallas 1764); calidris comes from the Greek kalidris or skalidris which means a grey coloured water-side bird which was mentioned by Aristotle; alba is from Latin albus meaning white, dull white.
Taxonomic history: Originally named Trynga alba in 1764 by Peter Simon Pallas (22 September 1741 – 8 September 1811) who was a Prussian zoologist and botanist who worked in Russia (1767–1810). Calidris was first used not as a generic name but as specific name for Red Knot Tringa calidris by J. Gmelin in 1789. It later became the genus of a number of small sandpipers, all closely related and now known as the Calidrine (or Calidritine) sandpipers within the family Scolopacidae. A number of other genera have been subsumed into this genus recently, such as Eurynorhynchus (Spoon-billed Sandpiper), Limicola (Broad-billed Sandpiper), Micropalama (Stilt Sandpiper), Philomachus (Ruff) and Tryngites (Buff-breasted Sandpiper).
Former scientific names:
Arenaria: (Bechstein 1803) Latin relating to sand; arena meaning sand.
Charadrius: (Linnaeus 1756) Late Latin charadrius In the Vulgate Bible (late 4th Century) this word was used to describe a yellowish bird. Greek kharadrios which describes a plain-coloured, nocturnal species that dwelt in ravines (kharadra) ravine and river valleys.
Crocethia: (Billberg 1828) From the Greek kroke pebble (krokale beach) theio to run.
Erolia: (Vieillot 1819) from the French Érolie , the name given to Curlew Sandpiper by Vieillot in 1816.
Tringa: (Linnaeus 1758) Modern Latin tringa the name given to the Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus by Aldrovandus (1599). This is derived form the Greek trungas, which is a thrush-sized, white-rumped wading bird that bobs its tail, as mentioned by Aristotle.
Trynga (Pallas 1764) see Tringa above.
Arenaria calidris ([Linnaeus] Meyer 1810): See above.
- grisea ([Linnaeus] Bechstein 1809): Medieval Latin griseus meaning grey which was derived from the Old French gris meaning grey.
- vulgaris (Bechstein1803): Latin vulgaris meaning common; vulgus people.
Calidris arenaria ([Linnaeus] Illiger1811): See above.
- leucophæa (Pallas): Greek leukophaes gleaming white, shining white)
- rubidus ([Gmelin] Vieillot 1819): Latin rubidus ruddy, red, dark-red.
Calidris tringoides (Vieillot 1825): From genus tringa (Linnaeus 1758); Greek -oides meaning resembling.
Charadrius calidris (Linnaeus 1766): See above.
Ch. rubidus (Gmelin 1788): See above.
Crocethia alba.(Billberg 1828): See above.
- arenaria (Linnaeus 1766)
- calidris (Gmelin 1788)
- calidris grisea minor (Brisson 1760)
Trynga tridactyla (Pallas 1826)
Two (sometimes considered monotypic).
- a. alba: breeds Greenland east to north-central Siberia
- a. rubidus: breeds northern Canada, Alaska and eastern Siberia (?)
Distribution: This species can be found on every continent except Antarctica during its annual travels. It breeds in the high arctic in northern Canada, Greenland and parts of Russia. Outside the breeding season its range matches very closely both Ruddy Turnstones and Grey Plover across every inhabited continent along coasts; rarely seen inland.
This species has a global population of between 620,000 and 700,000 individuals. There is some uncertainty about the global population trend as some populations are decreasing while others are increasing, are stable or have unknown trends.
When you see these tiny birds, it is hard to imagine that they are one of the longest distance migrants on earth, breeding as they do up in the Arctic Tundra and wintering as far south as Tierra del Fuego, the Cape of South Africa and Australia.
Habitat preference: Nesting habitat; well vegetated moist areas to drier clay or gravel slopes and the tops of stony ridges. The vegetation includes arctic willows, sedges, heathers, purple saxifrage, and mountain avens. On migration they frequent hard-packed sand beaches, tidal mudflats, rocky coastlines, and inland ponds, streams, reservoirs, and shallow prairie lakes. Non-breeding grounds are sandy beaches all over the world or occasionally mudflats, lakeshores, and riversides.
Nest: In High Arctic, on dry stony tundra or well-drained ridges close to or within a tuft of low plants. Slight depression or shallow cup lined with mosses or willow leaves. Incubation 23-27 days. Chicks precocial, parent leads chicks from nest at one day old, fledging approx. 17days.
Migration: It seems a little strange that within the Sanderling population some individuals will migrate south from the Arctic only as far as Europe to spend the winter while others will travel on to Africa and some even as far south as the African Cape. Why does this happen? There must be some sort of pay-off for all the effort, danger and energy spent on travelling the extra distance. That difference may be to do with the rich pickings and warmth that can be found in the tropics. There has been shown to be a difference in the amount of time Sanderlings spend feeding in the tropics compared to the temperate zone. In the Netherlands they spend seventy-nine per cent of their day foraging for food whereas in Ghana birds spend as little as thirty-eight per cent of their time feeding. Lazing around on tropical beaches always struck me as being a good way to pass the northern winter and I have often considered it as an option, but getting there is expensive and involves much effort, this must surely be true too for the Sanderlings, especially as they actually have to fly there themselves. Nature has a way of creating payoffs for expeditionary birds. It may have taken more effort to get there, but the rewards are greater, thus making it worth it and the most successful species are those that employ a range of strategies to survive.
Habits: Sanderlings are famous for their high-speed antics at the wave wash area of the beach, chasing the waves as they withdraw and running back as the next advances. Like many sandpipers Sanderlings often roosts on one leg and will travel in, sometimes very large flocks, through just a few birds, or occasionally singly. Despite the fact that they are almost always found in groups or small flocks, the individuals that make up those flocks are forever changing, individuals don’t seem to stick together, there is no flock cohesion. When two groups arrive at the same place at the same time and merge, when they split again, they will do so with a number of birds from each of the original distinct groups. This is not that incomprehensible when you consider that these long distance migrants do not travel together as family groups with females migrating first, then the males, followed by the juveniles. Families don’t regroup on the wintering grounds and birds from a given breeding area don’t necessarily winter at the same locations. So it seems that Sanderlings, although gregarious are not good at making friends. Although they do flock, they can be aggressive to congeners fluffing up their feathers giving a hunch-backed appearance and charging the opponent until it takes flight. Occupies high tide roosts, often with other species.
Food: Sanderlings are basically carnivores foraging for food by pecking and probing and even occasionally catching flying insects. Their diet includes small crabs, amphipods and other small crustaceans, polychaete worms, molluscs, horseshoe crab eggs, crane flies, midges, mosquitoes, beetles, butterflies, and moths. However, if there is no animal prey available, they will turn to a vegetarian diet that includes saxifrage buds and shoots, roots, grass seeds, algae, and mosses.
Vital statistics: 18-22 cm; wingspan 43 cm; bill 2.1-2.8 cm; tarsus 2.2-2.8 cm; tail 5.4 cm; weight 41.9 – 90g.
Eggs: First recorded by Macfarlane when he killed a female from a nest with eggs in 1863 in the Anderson River area of Northern Canada in the vast tundra area known as the Barren Grounds. June to July. 3.3-3.8 x 2.4-2.6 cm. 11g, usually 4 sometimes 3. Dull green olive or olive-brown, sparsely spotted with browns and black. Eggs laid at 26- to 29-h intervals. May lay 2 clutches when male incubates one the female the other. Incubation lasts 23-31 days.
Generally males are brighter than females in breeding plumage but this is very hard to judge in the field and they are usually indistinguishable from second half June.
Bare Parts: These little birds are the opposite of the Grey Plover with regard to their hind toe situation. They are the only Calidris sandpiper that does not possess one. How useful this feature is in the field is debateable, for a start Sanderlings are reasonably easy to identify in all plumages, so the need to see the hind toe, or lack of it, is largely negated. If though, you are unsure of what you have before you and the clincher is the hind toe, then good luck with seeing it on a bird whizzing about the beach. A lack of hind toes is common to many species that run quickly, and the Sanderling is definitely in that camp, their legs moving so fast that they become invisible, giving the impression that the Sanderling is in fact a hovercraft.
Voice: kip or ket, ket, ket
Conservation Status: Of Least Concern ( Birdlife International) due to the large numbers of individuals involved (between 620,000 and 700,000), they are however, as a result of diminishing populations and range, placed on the UK Amber list.
Threats: Destruction or degradation of shoreline habitats due to development and human disturbance. As denizens of the water’s edge on the coast they are particularly badly affected by oil spills that reach the shore. Sanderlings are also vulnerable to pollution from pesticides. Reduction in food stock, in particular horseshoe crab eggs, due to over exploitation can be a real threat on migration.
Current conservation efforts: None found.
Current research projects:
It has been suggested that the English name Sanderling is derived from the Icelandic name Sanderla. However, another school of thought suggests that it derives from Old English sand-yrðling meaning sand-ploughman.
Flight speed: once timed in Florida at 41mph (1973)
Collective noun: a grain of Sanderlings
Longevity record: >18yrs 7mths, controlled by ringer UK.
Stamps. Alderney, Chile, Israel, Jersey, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Niger, Portugal,; Switzerland, Tuvalu, Union des Comores, among others.
Ships: A number of US Navy warships have been named after the Sanderling; USS Sanderling (AM-37), a Lapwing(!)-class minesweeper commissioned in 1918, decommissioned 1922; USS Sanderling (AMc-11), a minesweeper placed in service in 1941, disposed of in 1944; USS Sanderling, intended to be minesweeper AM-410, but the contract for her construction was cancelled in 1945; USS Sanderling (AMCU-49), a minesweeper, commissioned 1944, decommissioned 1957.
Glasgow Airport also has a link to the Sanderling. The site at Abbotsinch, near Paisley in Renfrewshire, was opened and the Royal Air Force 602 Squadron (City of Glasgow) Auxiliary Air Force moved in. In 1940, a torpedo training unit was formed, which trained both RAF and Royal Navy crews. All of Her Majesty’s Ships and naval bases are given ship names and Abbotsinch was known as HMS Sanderling after June 1940. The Royal Navy left in October 1963 but the name Sanderling was retained and HMS Sanderling’s ship’s bell was presented to the new airport and a bar in the airport was named The Sanderling Bar.
Aircraft: The name of the Sanderling in Hawai’i is Hunakai and means sea foam. Hawaiian Airlines named some of their Boeing 767 fleet after birds N592HA is called Hunakai.
Sanderling was the fourth pin badge in the Wader Quest Collectables series.
BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Calidris alba Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 21/02/2021.
BirdLife International 2016. Calidris alba. Downloaded on 21 February 2021.
Hayman, Peter, John Marchant & Tony Prater: Shorebirds (1986)
del Hoyo, Josep, Andrew Elliot & Jordi Sargatal: Handbook of the Birds of the World – Vol. 3 (1996)
Jobling, James A.: Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names (2010)
Johnsgard, Paul A.: The Plovers, Sandpipers, and Snipes of the World (1981)
Koch, Ludwig: The Encyclopedia of British Birds (1955)
Newton, Alfred: A Dictionary of Birds (1896)
Rosair, David & David Cotteridge: Photographic guide to the Waders of the World (1995)
Saunders, Howard & W. Eagle Clarke: Manual of British Birds (1927)
Seebohm, Henry: The Geographical Distribution of the Family Charadriidae, or, The Plovers, Sandpipers, Snipes and Their Allies. (1887-1888)
Tegetmeier, W. B., H. H. Slater & E. W. Frohawk: British Birds with their Nests and Eggs Vol V. Order Limicolæ. Rev. Henry H. Slater (1898)
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of the World; https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/sander/cur/introduction