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Sanderling

Calidris alba

Despite their diminutive size, sanderlings fly thousands of miles to spend the winter on the Solent coast, all the way from the Siberian Arctic and Greenland.

Individual sanderlings have been known to make annual round trips of nearly 20,000 miles between their breeding and wintering grounds.⠀

Sanderlings are most easily recognised by their behaviour, scampering about on the sand rather than walking and probing in the mud.

They feed in small flocks at the water’s edge, sprinting backwards and forwards after the waves, looking for marine crustaceans, fish and even jellyfish to eat. In the winter, they’re pale grey with a bright white belly and a short straight black bill.⠀

ID tips: sanderlings versus dunlins

Sanderlings are similar in size and shape to another small wading bird, the dunlin, and they are often seen sharing the same habitat. The easiest ways to tell them apart are by observing their colouring and behaviour.

Dunlins have pale, brownish-grey upperparts and white underparts – if you look closely through binoculars or a telescope, you may spot their subtle, light-grey breastband. Sanderlings on the other hand have snowy white underparts and a silvery back: one of the Bird Aware rangers says sanderlings look like they’ve just been freshly laundered in comparison with dunlins’ rather more smudgy appearance. Another point to look out for is that dunlins’ bills are a little longer and more hooked than the sanderling’s short straight bill.

And while sanderlings scamper along the water’s edge, you’ll find dunlins foraging energetically on mudflats at low tide.

Sanderlings are slightly larger than dunlins, they have snowy white underparts, silvery backs, a short, straight black bill.

A sanderling

Dunlins have black downturned curved bill, black legs, white underparts, brownish-grey back

A dunlin

Local spotlight

Sanderling are relatively common to the Solent, but not in large numbers as there are not many in the UK.

Conservation status

Sanderlings are amber listed in the UK and are a qualifying feature for the Chichester and Langstone Harbours Special Protection Area – that means, when the site was designated, a nationally significant number used these coastlines in the winter.

Did you know?

Like some other wading birds, sanderlings only have three toes rather than the usual four. Their missing the hind toe adds to their distinctive speedy running action, making them look even more like a clockwork toy.