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On White Sandpipers and Bird Photography

August 12, 2011
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Sanderlings are the quintessential shorebird.  The one that even nonbirders think of when they think of sandpipers, even if they don’t know the proper name.  They nest on the tundra all the way  around the Arctic Circle and, during at least three months of the year, they can be easily found on just about any stretch of sandy shoreline anywhere in the entire world.  They are ubiquitous.  So much so, that many birders scarcely give them a second thought when they come across these scurrying little Calidrids almost immediately after stepping onto the sand.  And you can barely blame them.  We birders are so often tuned into the unusual, looking for the abnormal bird, the unexpected.  Not the flocks of completely expected, if striking, sandpipers running up and down more or less identical beaches anywhere on the globe.  And Sanderlings, in particular, are nothing if not completely expected.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, it’s the way birders operate.  Myself included, more often than not.

Except when I’m hauling a camera.  Birding with a camera – a real one – has been a means by which I cast off all of my Type A birder tendencies and consider the regular birds around me, because even regular birds can offer the opportunities for great photos when light and land conspire to work in your favor.  When I was in South Carolina a couple weeks ago I had a morning to explore Huntington Beach State Park in Georgetown County on the upper coast of the state.  I had my target species like any good ticker and when I walked out on a section of the beach proper, I was initially discouraged by the apparent lack of bird activity.  That is, until I noticed a pair of Sanderling working there way towards me on the beach.  The sun was at my back, the birds were distant and moving closer, and I saw opportunity staring me right in the face.

I sat down on the beach (mindful of photo guru Bill Schmoker’s great advice) and waited, and it didn’t take long before they were close enough for me to start shooting.

Calidris alba means, simply, white shorebird.  It’s clear that Linneaus barely gave these common little birds very much more thought than birders do.  The white refers to the Sanderling’s basic, or winter, plumage, as pale as winter sand and surf and distinct among its brownish-grayish co-geners.  These birds in South Carolina were actively molting, adults fresh from the tundra coming into that namesake plumage from their handsome ruddy alternate suit.  It’s not a plumage I see too often, not out of lack of opportunities, but more out of an unfortunate apathy towards this species.  This was the first thing I thought about as the birds inched towards me, how I would have written the birds off had I not had a camera and an opportunity.

I’ve found that to be the case in lots of situations.  Having a camera and wanting a passable, if not good, photos of a bird for a blog or just for my own personal records, encourages me to slow down.  Waiting for that great photo opportunity is nothing more than closely observing birds of the way that everyone is always encouraging us to do.  It’s trying to predict a bird’s movements and behavior.  It’s getting comfortable with a species in a way that simply birding to identify as much as possible doesn’t always allow.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with birding for a big day list, ticking that species and heading off to the next, but camera birding has made me more aware of what I’m seeing.  It’s made me a more complete birder.  Each has its place and its time.

The two sandpipers worked together in tandem.  I try so very hard not to anthropomorphize birds, but it was hard not to consider that these two individuals were mirroring each other.  Now whether my biased characterizations were correct and these two were a breeding pair or traveling companions, or if the realist in me assumes that this pattern is just one that Sanderlings fall into when they forage together or if the waves were such that two birds near each other would attack it the same way, I don’t know. My suspicions lie with the second, even if that’s far less poetic.

The photo above shows well the little idiosyncrasy that Sanderlings, alone, among shorebirds show, the lack of a hallux, the fourth toe that points backwards on most birds. Sanderlings, being true birds of the sandy shore, evolved it out of existence, having no need to cling to branches or even lumpy mud.  It makes for a distinctive silhouette, and footprint.

One bird, out of either curiosity or ambivalence, crept closer and closer up into the dry sand not more than 10 feet away.  I was holding my breath, preparing for the amazing shorebird head shots that were sure to be mine, when a crowd of loud yahoo tourists piled onto the beach behind me.  The birds scattered.  I sat, camera in hand, offering them a look somewhere between slack-jawed astonishment and mild annoyance, when one woman sheepishly offered an “excuse me” before shouting at her companions.  At least they didn’t have a dog.

Even so, now I have far too many hi-res photos of Sanderlings, none of which I really feel like I can let go of.  I suppose that’s something in the corner of the bird that’s probably too often ignored, and all because having a camera encouraged a closer look.

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3 Comments
  1. August 12, 2011 8:55 am

    Great post Nate! You’ve captured in prose exactly what bird photography has done for me. Really nice photos and “perspective”.

  2. August 19, 2011 7:23 pm

    Very much enjoyed this post. I became fascinated with photographing Sanderlings at Canaveral National Seashore in January, and I can’t let go of the photos either. They’re actually quite darling little things when you take the time to observe them. 🙂

  3. June 6, 2013 10:07 pm

    I really loved this post. Sandpipers are defiantly one of my favorite birds, the way they stick their beaks into the sand and find food to eat. Of course the moment where you can capture an amazing photo, people always ruin it.

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