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Sanderling

Calidris alba ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: SCOLOPACIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Sanderling’s black legs blur as it runs back and forth on the beach, picking or probing for tiny prey in the wet sand left by receding waves. Sanderlings are medium-sized “peep” sandpipers recognizable by their pale nonbreeding plumage, black legs and bill, and obsessive wave-chasing habits. Learn this species, and you’ll have an aid in sorting out less common shorebirds. These extreme long-distance migrants breed only on High Arctic tundra, but during the winter they live on most of the sandy beaches of the world.

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Keys to identification Help

Shorebirds
Shorebirds
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Sanderlings are small, plump sandpipers with a stout bill about the same length as the head. These and other sandpipers in the genus Calidris are often called “peeps”; Sanderlings are medium-sized members of this group.

  • Color Pattern

    You’ll most often see Sanderlings in nonbreeding plumage, when they are very pale overall: light gray above and white below, with a blackish mark at the shoulder. In spring and summer, Sanderlings are spangled black, white, and rich rufous on the head, neck, and back. At all times, their legs and bills are black. In flight, white wingstripes contrast with dark wings.

  • Behavior

    Sanderlings breed on the High Arctic tundra and migrate south in fall to become one of the most common birds along beaches. They gather in loose flocks to probe the sand of wave-washed beaches for marine invertebrates, running back and forth in a perpetual “wave chase.”

  • Habitat

    During migration and winter, they forage on beaches but will also use mudflats. Sanderlings nest in the High Arctic on gravel patches and low-growing, wet tundra.

Range Map Help

Sanderling Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult

    Sanderling

    Breeding adult
    • Small, stocky shorebird
    • Usually seen running along edge of surf on beaches
    • Breeding adult shows mottled rufous upperparts and on head/neck
    • Bright white below
    • © Christopher L. Wood, New Jersey, May 2008
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Sanderling

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Small, stocky shorebird, larger than "peeps"
    • Short black bill
    • Nonbreeding adult shows pale, slaty gray above
    • Bright, snowy white below
    • © Christopher L. Wood, December 2004
  • Juvenile

    Sanderling

    Juvenile
    • Juvenile spangled black and white above with buffy wash on face and collar
    • Small, stocky shorebird
    • Usually seen on beaches
    • Short black bill
    • © Christopher L. Wood, September 2008
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Sanderling

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Small, stocky shorebird
    • Bold white wing-stripe distinctive in flight
    • Long, pointed wings
    • Pale gray above, bright white below
    • © Mike Forsman, Oxnard, California, November 2010
  • Breeding adult

    Sanderling

    Breeding adult
    • Small, stocky shorebird
    • Usually seen running along surf on beaches
    • Breeding adult spangled with rufous above, and on head and neck
    • Larger than "peeps"
    • © Reynir Skarsgard, Iceland, June 2011
  • Juveniles

    Sanderling

    Juveniles
    • Small, stocky shorebird
    • Distinctive in flight with bold white stripe on long, pointed wings
    • Spangled black and white above, bright white below
    • © Laura Meyers, Nickerson Beach, New York, September 2011

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Semipalmated Sandpiper

    Adult
    • Smaller and daintier than Sanderling
    • Small, thin bill
    • Darker and browner above than Sanderling
    • Streaking on sides of breast
    • © Raymond Lee, Elk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada, May 2011
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Dunlin

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Larger and stockier than Sanderling
    • Longer, decurved bill
    • Darker gray above with gray smudges/streaks on sides of neck and breast
    • White eyebrow
    • © Jim paris, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, February 2011
  • Nonbreeding adult

    White-rumped Sandpiper

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Smaller and more slender and elongated than Sanderling
    • Longer bill
    • Thin white eyebrow
    • Thin, dark streaks on flanks
    • © Will Sweet, Ipswich, Massachusetts, September 2011

Similar Species

The many species of “peeps” or small sandpipers can be very confusing, but Sanderlings are distinctive enough and common enough that it’s worth learning them—they can help you narrow down other species on the beach. The smallest peeps, including Semipalmated Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, White-rumped Sandpipers, and Least Sandpipers, are noticeably smaller, more slender, and browner than Sanderlings. Winter plumage Red Knots are larger with stouter bills; in flight, they are mostly dull gray above, lacking the obvious white wing stripe set against black wings of Sanderlings. Dunlin are larger than Sanderlings, with a longer and often downcurved bill. Small plovers, such as the Snowy Plover and Piping Plover, are smaller with bills that are shorter than their head, and they usually stay higher on the beach and don’t chase after waves. Because of the Sanderling’s reddish face and neck in breeding plumage, they are occasionally mistaken for Red-necked Stints, rare vagrants from Eurasia. However Red-necked Stints are smaller (similar to Semipalmated Sandpiper in size and habitat preferences) with shorter, finer bills than Sanderlings.

Find This Bird

Sanderlings are easy to find on sandy beaches from fall through spring. Pick a beach with a low, gradual slope and walk along the water’s edge. Look for small shorebirds running back and forth in sync with the waves—these are likely to be Sanderlings. While other shorebirds such as plovers and Willets may feed alongside Sanderlings on these outer beaches, this is truly the Sanderling’s domain; these plucky birds often aggressively defend their feeding territories at water’s edge from other shorebirds.