by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
Four Keys to ID
Size and Shape – Small, plump sandpipers with a stout bill about the same length as the head. Often called “peeps”
Color Pattern – Very pale overall during the winter months with light gray above and white below with a blackish mark at the shoulder. In the summer they are black, white and rufous on the head, neck and back.
Habitat – They forage on beaches and mudflats in the winter and during migration nest in the high arctic on gravel patches and in low growing wet vegetation.
Behavior – Migrate south from the high arctic tundra to become one of the most common birds along the beaches of the United States. They perform a “wave chase” running back and forth probing the wet sands along the shoreline for marine invertebrates.
The Sanderling is a Sandpiper as is found all along the coastline of the United States throughout the fall and winter months. It is one of the world’s most widespread shorebirds, able to be found on nearly all temperate and tropical sandy beaches throughout the world.
Sanderlings breed in the high Arctic Canadian islands and peninsulas. They have a wide range of nesting sites that include moist vegetated sites to well-drained clay or gravel slopes.
The diet of the Sanderling consists of small crabs, small crustaceans, polychaete worms and mollusks during the fall and winter months when they are inhabiting coastal shorelines. During the summer months, when in a different habitat, they feed on crane flies, midges, mosquitoes, beetles, butterflies and moths that they catch in the air or skim from shallow water pools. Additionally, they will eat all types of plant material when animal prey is not available.
Measuring only a few inches wide, the female builds the nest which consists of forming a shallow, cup shaped hollow in the stony ground of the Tundra. Once formed, the depression is often lined with leaves, lichens and moss. The pair has one brood annually consisting of 3-4 green to brown eggs with brown spots. Mostly monogamous, they establish large territories when nesting and chase intruders away from their territory.
Sanderlings will be seen in Florida throughout the winter months. This quick moving, “wave chasing” small sandpiper can be seen roosting on our island beaches in closely packed flocks as photographed. These flocks can have up to several thousand birds standing against the wind. Peregrine Falcons are a predator of this small shorebird and in a group, if threatened by such a predator, Sanderlings take flight and form a ball that travel erratically over the ocean.
Although Sanderlings are one of the most common shorebirds, their populations have been declining and they are listed as a species of high concern by some authorities. Declines may be linked to development or alteration of shoreline habitats which are prized by Sanderlings for survival and by humans for recreation. They are also highly vulnerable to pollution. Lastly, their long distance migrations can pose another problem if staging areas along their route have been impacted by development or degraded in any way. These “food stops” are critical for the survival of the birds during migration.
Without a doubt, this is the time of the year for us to see Sanderlings in Southwest Florida. As with any shorebirds, please observe from a distance and strive to not disturb the birds into flight. These Sandpiper “peeps” are a favorite to watch and a sure sign of the season on our island beaches.