EVERY WEEK IN 2017 WE WILL HAVE NEW SUGGESTIONS FOR A DIFFERENT GROUP OF BIRDS TO LOOK FOR TO HELP DEVELOP YOUR #MY200BIRDYEAR LIST.
This week, it is Calidris sandpipers
Most of our smaller (and some medium-sized) waders, which aren’t plovers, are sandpipers. And this catch all term, can itself be roughly divided in two. The larger, long- (and sometimes colourful-) legged, straighter-billed elegant ones are mostly in the genus Tringa. But the ones we are dealing with today are the rounded, dumpy ones, usually with duller legs and a slightly down curved bill. These are the Calidris sandpipers. In real life, for most of the year, the Dunlin is the main player, the default small , dumpy wader, the bog-standard, basic calidrid. This is the most important one to learn. If you know your Dunlins inside and out, then when a rare North American ‘peep’ comes along, you have a chance of knowing. Also, how will you identify a Curlew Sandpiper unless you know what a Dunlin can look like? Otherwise, if in doubt, it is a Dunlin.
A small (but not tiny) wader, the dumpy Dunlin comes in three main flavours: breeding plumage, juvenileand winter plumage. To master the Dunlin, you need to know the difference and mastery of Dunlins is one of the best skills you can have as a birder. Breeding adults are pretty straightforward thanks to the black belly, which is only found on Dunlin among smaller waders. Juveniles (which appear from about July onwards) are neat and surprising, with nice, fresh, buff-fringed wing and back feathers. A key thing to look for is (slightly messy) black streaking on the flanks. No Curlew Sandpiper or American rare sandpiper will have this. Winter birds are pale grey and white, very like most other calidrids, so concentrate on the dumpy structure and long, down curved bill. The rump is dark (not white; compare this with Curlew Sandpiper and also Knot).
Curlew Sandpieprs are passage birds in the UK, and moderately scarce. In breeding plumage, Curlew Sandpipers are deep brick red especially on the underparts, though they are usually a bit blotchy in the UK. In winter they are essentially similar in colour to Dunlins (apart the rump). Juveniles, which appear from late summer into autumn, are neat, peachy toned scally backed birds, always lacking the black flank streaking of Dunlin juveniles. In all plumages the rump is white. Check for structural differences with Dunlin. Where the latter are dumpy and short necked, Curlew Sands are longer legged (so stand taller), longer necked and more elegant looking with a slightly loner curved bill (which gives them their ‘Curlew’ name).
These are the wind-up clockwork toy birds which dash along the edge of the tiny surf waves on sandy beaches. They are a bit like pale Dunlin in winter, but have shorter straighter bills and more contrastying black and white wings in flight. In spring they get a nice golden spangled look and completely lack the black belly or flank streaks of Dunlin. A passage and wintering bird, which may pass through inland sites in small numbers in spring and summer.
The big brother of the Dunlin, the Knot is a sizable calidrid, getting on for Redshank-sized. These are the waders that form those huge ‘murmuration’ swirling flocks over The Wash in winter, as featured in every TV wildlife documentary about or coasts and estuaries. It is another wintering bird which also passes on passage in spring and autumn, the breeding plumage is a gorgeous brick red beneath and spangling above. Winter birds are grey. Note the size, the relatively small head and short straight bill. The rump is pale, bordering on white (a bit like a Grey Plover’s rump). The legs are greyish green, but are blacker in breeding plumage.
Almost exclusively a ‘wintering’ bird, a perhaps surprisingly large number 13,000 Purple Sandpipers spend the winter around our rocky coasts, mainly around the Scottish and northern English east coast, as well as the coast of north Wales and north-west England and Northern Ireland, plus south-western England. They are about the size of a dumpy Redshank, looking a bit like a giant dark Dunlin with orange legs and an orange base to the bill. They like wave, splashed weedy rocky shores.
Little Stints are tiny little waders, which look like they could run through the legs of Dunlin! They are quite scarce passage birds (perhaps fewer than 500 birds in the country), mostly seen as fresh juveniles in late summer and autumn. Of regular Europeans birds, only the Temminck’s Stint is similar in size (there are some rare North American and very rare Asiatic calidrids of similar size). Unlike Temmick’s Stints, they are colourful, with rusty and golden tones,, black legs and a ‘split supercilium’ (the pale line above the eye appears to divide).
Even scarcer that the Little Stint, the little ‘Minx’ appears in small numbers in early May and again in the autumn. They are greyer stints, with a crouched, creeping gait, and pale grey-green legs. In some ways they resemble tiny Common Sandpipers. Temminck’s Stints are birds of freshwater habitats, such as lagoons and gravel pit edges.
All photos from Alamy