Text and photo by Peter Vankevich
A good part of the year, except perhaps for the heart of summer, it is hard to walk the beach of Ocracoke without seeing a small, chunky sandpiper, either alone or in small groups along the water’s edge. This bird is called a Sanderling (Calidris alba). Most of the year when in basic plumage, it is pale white underneath and a mottled grey back and a distinctive shoulder patch line, that is more prominent in juveniles. Its bill and legs are black. In flight, Sanderlings have a bold white wing-stripe that is bordered with black. As spring approaches they molt into breeding plumage and the head and breast turn to a variable brown to chestnut color. When in flight, you may hear a soft twittering sound. In spite of their small size, they are truly amazing long-distant migrants. The vast majority of birds you see on the beach on Ocracoke will journey thousands of miles north in spring to breed on the high-arctic tundra leaving just a few remaining nonbreeders.
On the Outer Banks, it is possible to see about 30 species of birds that are classified as sandpipers. Several of them, especially the smaller ones, can be difficult to identify due to similarities of plumage, shape and size. But with the Sanderling, you can rely on another characteristic that will help with accurate identification. When active, it moves constantly, frantically probing for food and keeping ahead of the waves as it feeds on small crustaceans and bivalve mollusks as well as worms and insects. No other sandpiper on Ocracoke moves in such a regular fashion. When resting, you may observe one that appears as if it is has lost a leg, as they will sometimes stand and even hop on one leg and bend the other into the feathers.
Last spring I took a birding trip to the South Point with Ocracoke residents Carol and Tom Pahl. Tom especially enjoys observing these sandpipers and noted how they will defend their space and chase off other Sanderlings that enter their territory. Indeed they do. If you spend some time on the beach, you may see one hunch its shoulders and thrust its head forward and run rapidly, even flying at an intruder. Usually the other Sanderling will quickly back off, but sometimes they will square off facing each other in menacing displays. Even then in most instances, it is the interloper that finally retreats.
Many of us may be able to metaphorically identify at times in our lives with the Sanderling as it ekes out its living, staying just ahead of rushing waters and taking advantages of the lulls to gain its sustenance; keeping its wits about it, wary of competitors and -perhaps just for them- the whooshing sound of a hungry Peregrine Falcon.