Have you walked or driven on the ocean beach recently? If not, it is not too late to catch migrating shorebirds. Lately, the most common sight is thousands of sanderlings racing along with the waves or skittering along the sand frantically probing with their black bills for invertebrate prey. They are the palest of the shorebirds at this time of year or when dressed in non-breeding plumage. Some sanderlings still have some rufous coloring, especially on the neck.
However, if you look carefully you may find surprises in the flocks of sanderlings. Check for size differences, color and size differences in bills, leg coloring, location of the birds in relation to the crowd of sanderlings, and differences in feeding habits.
Western sandpipers, for example, are about two inches smaller than their sanderling counterparts, but easily mix with them as well as with dunlin and semipalmated sandpipers. Some adult western sandpipers may still show remnants of their rufous breeding plumage. Juveniles generally sport a pale face and breast, but also show bright rufous on their upper scapular feathers just like their parents.
dunlin can also be found lurking, resting and feeding with flocks of sanderlings these days. They are slightly larger than sanderlings, but not by much. They can be seen probing busily on our coastal beaches and in shallow water for goodies such as, marine worms, small crustaceans, mollusks, and other aquatic creatures. Dunlin are a stockier bird with short legs and a relatively long, black drooping bill in comparison to the Sanderling’s. Soon we will see dunlin in large dense flocks of their own, but during this past week or two I have only seen a dozen or so, and they seem to prefer to hang out with the sanderlings.
Once in a while however, a rare bird joins the sanderling group, but half-heartedly. Two Baird’s sandpipers did just that two weeks ago. The Baird’s tends to forage on the drier upper areas of the beaches and will often feed in grassy areas such as our sand dunes. In this case, the two were foraging around the edges of the little tide pools left behind as the tide went out to sea. All the while, though, the sanderlings were not too far away, closer to the wet sand, but somewhat near none-the-less.
In all plumages, Baird’s sandpipers have very long wings that extend beyond the tip of the tail, relatively short legs, a short all-black bill and black legs. As reported in the Observer last year, “Juveniles are the most likely Baird’s to be seen at this time of year in our area as opposed to adult birds. They have a neat scaly pattern on the upper-side and a buffy breast band. Overall, they appear to be brownish in color.”
Baird’s sandpiper were reported for the first time on the Peninsula and the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge in August 2017. Do you suppose they liked it here so much that two of them returned for a visit this year on their way to their wintering grounds in South America? I would like to think so!