Sanderling (Calidris alba)
By Andy Belt

If you’ve ever taken a trip in late summer to Lake Michigan, chances are you’ve seen a nearly all-white shorebird darting back and forth along the shoreline. This plump-bodied bird appears to “chase” the waves as it looks for macroinvertebrates (e.g., small crustaceans and mollusks) left uncovered by the receding waters. Sanderlings (Calidris alba) are small sandpipers with a short, straight black bill, black feet and legs, and, unique among sandpipers, lacking a hind toe.

During the nonbreeding season, you can find this cosmopolitan shorebird almost anywhere there’s a coastline. To see Sanderlings during the breeding season in their striking reddish-brown and white plumage, you’d have to travel to their nesting grounds in the high-arctic tundra of North America, Europe, or Asia. In Indiana, you can catch them during migration, typically from mid-July to late September, as long as there’s a stretch of beach or open mudflat available.

I first encountered Sanderlings by the dozens in Florida and only later seeing them in Indiana, as I grew more interested in lakefront birding. I’d see flashes of white and gray as I scanned the beaches and jetties. I’ve photographed many over the years, with some being almost too close for my lens to focus. On the pier at Michigan City, one particular juvenile walked within inches of my hand, thinking of me as no more than a funny-looking caribou.

While their global status is of least concern, Sanderlings are at risk from threats such as climate change, coastal development, oil spills, and human disturbance. By advocating for protection of their breeding and wintering grounds, we can ensure their long-term survival as well as for other at-risk shorebird species.

Cover photo: Sanderling by Ryan Sanderson.

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