Stalking Sanderlings

Sanderling (Calidris alba) at Bullards Beach, Oregon Coast
Sanderling (Calidris alba)—Bullards Beach, Oregon Coast

The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place.  —Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

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While walking along the edge of the tide, a flock of small birds flew past. The flock moved in fast, graceful formation along the surf line. In synchronized flight their wings flickered, beating so fast, they were almost a blur. Just inches above sand and water, the flock rose and fell, shifting left, then right; an areal ballet as graceful as the waves themselves.

Sanderlings! Oh, how I love these little shorebirds, although you might call them “peeps.” I like that name too!

The sanderling is a medium-sized sandpiper in the genus Calidris (a short, stout, shorebird), and is one of the most widespread. In autumn, they leave their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra to winter along the coast where they gather in loose flocks. This little bird is always on the move, chasing and retreating from waves. Timing is everything, and theirs is impeccable, which keeps them from being swept into the sea.

That’s me!  There I go, making a mad dash to keep my feet dry from an incoming wave!
That’s me! There I go, making a mad dash to keep my feet dry!

I love watching sanderlings play their cat-and-mouse game with the waves. I did the same thing when I was a child; okay, I still do, as the photo above reveals. However, for the sanderling, it is a game of survival. When a wave recedes, the sanderling follows its retreat; and before the next one rolls in, the sanderling quickly probes the wet sand for tiny mollusks, crustaceans, worms, and crab eggs. A resourceful hunter, if seafood is off the menu, the sanderling will dine on mosquitoes, crane flies, beetles, butterflies, and moths. If these are scarce, the sanderling must rely on plant roots, shoots, buds, seeds, mosses, and algae. No wonder this little bird is such a success with so many foods to choose from.

For as long as I can remember, I have tried capturing sanderlings through my lens. My usual approach of stalking them got me plenty of blurry snapshots, and images that showed them too far away to be of any use. I needed a new game plan.

1896 Coquille River Lighthouse in Bandon, Oregon.
1896 Coquille River Lighthouse in Bandon, Oregon.

While in Bandon, Oregon recently, we visited Bullards Beach. This is a wonderful place for wildlife viewing, and the scenery is gorgeous! It is where the Coquille River meets the sea, and the site of the 1896 Coquille River Lighthouse. Although spring was yet a few weeks away, birds gathered and sang from the tops of the beach grasses. Having made my way through a tangle of driftwood, I finally reached the beach. The weather was so beautiful; it was hard to imagine that a storm had come through only the day before. The sky was bright blue, and a warm, salty, gentle breeze mixed with the sound of the breakers lapping against the shore.

I heard a sharp twittering, and turned to see a flock of sanderlings chasing the tidewater. As I followed them, they ran faster, until they were many yards ahead, and looking like pebbles on the sand. So, I stopped and kept still. Almost immediately, the flocked turned and came at me on foot and in flight. So close at times, my lens couldn’t focus. There were moments when I could have reached out and touched them. It was utterly fantastic!

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