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 Sanderling - Fact File


Calidris alba
Passage migrant and winter visitor.
Mainly coastal - rare inland. Typically associated with sandy beaches, but also mudflats and coastal pools.

Usually seen in its rather smart grey, black and white winter plumage, often showing distinctive black 'shoulder' markings. On beaches, has characteristic feeding habit of running back and forth with the surf.

18 - 21cm


A small shore bird common, in fact often abundant, on passage and in winter, it breeds in the High Arctic. So far to the north, in fact, that only very few ornithologists have ever seen it on its nesting site. It was not until the 1860s that the first nest and eggs were found, in the Canadian Arctic of Mackenzie. It nests in Arctic Canada, Greenland, Spitzbergen and across Siberia. The only place in Europe that it nests is in Svalbard.

Sanderling (Photo © George Rezeter)
Sanderlings are characteristic of sandy beaches, running back and forth, with the ebb and flow of the tide, like so many little clockwork toys. They are a delicate grey above, with contrasting pure white underparts, and jet black bill and feet. However, in the breeding plumage, more rarely encountered in Britain The head and upper parts become a mixture of orange-buff, cinnamon and brown.

Dr David Bannerman, author of the mighty 12 volume Birds of the British Isles, wrote of this bird " I confess to its being my favorite small wader and one which I have been fortunate to meet in many lands." He described it as being "… so much more lively in its movements on the ground than the dunlin or the ringed plover. To watch it running along the tide-line following the receding waves and darting back as the next ripples nearly overtake it, is one of the most delightful sights imaginable."

In the 1990s the total population wintering in Europe was estimated at about 27,000 birds, with many thousands more passing through en route to spend the winter in Africa. And additionally the Greenland and Canadian populations winter in the New World. Despite these huge numbers, it is not a bird I see very often in England, mostly because my birding is largely confined to Suffolk, where it is not so common. Even in the 1960s it was described as less common than formerly, (with flocks of 50-60 in the 1950s) but the latest Suffolk Bird Report records only small numbers with maximum counts of six during 1999 - rarer than Little Stints.
(Editors note: At least 38 birds present near the pier at Lowestoft, Suffolk on 19 Jan 2002)

John A. Burton

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Copyright Information

  • Article: © John Burton/Birds Of Britain
  • Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge © Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.
  • Photograph: © George Rezeter