It’s tempting to take the Sanderling for granted: The tiny, speed-walking shorebirds are fixtures on beaches all over the world, easily recognized by how they run along, forever one step ahead of the waves.
For years, this hyperactive sandpiper moved too fast for researchers to even be sure of its migration routes that stretch from the Arctic Circle to South America. Weighing in at just two ounces, Sanderlings were too small to carry the transmitters used to study other birds.
That’s finally changing. New research tools, such as ultra-light transmitters and techniques that analyze where birds have been by the carbon residue in their feathers, are uncovering the Sanderling’s secrets.
The research tells two stories: One is about the miraculous flying prowess of this globe-trotting species. The other is about how those unique abilities aren’t enough to overcome the changing coastal environment that has cut their population of about 300,000 in North America by more than a third since the 1970s.
Both study topics could end up helping other shorebirds as well.
“So many people think of these birds as doing fine, since they’re on every beach from California to the Gulf Coast,’’ said Jess Cosentino, a researcher working on a comprehensive study of Sanderlings in North America. “But the data is showing us they’re in precipitous decline.’’
We spent a good part of our fall wandering the Atlantic coast, following warblers, raptors and shorebirds on the move. On the National Seashore along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, we found ourselves surrounded by crowds of Sanderlings on the near-empty beaches. The protected stretch of shoreline is one of the primary stopover spots for the birds on their migrations down the Atlantic coast.
Here’s a video that gives you a sense of how Sanderlings work together on the beaches: