Calidris albasanderling

Geographic Range

Sanderlings have one of the widest winter ranges of any shorebird. They are found along the coastlines of all oceans and seas from about 50 degrees north to about 50 degrees south in winter, including both temperate and tropical coastal areas. Their winter range in the Americas includes Pacific coastal areas as far north as British Columbia to northern Chile in the south, and Atlantic coastal areas as far north as southern Maine and southwards to Brazil. They are found throughout the coastlines of the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, and Antillean Islands as well. Winter range outside of the Americas is from the British Isles to the Mediterranean Sea, Caspian Sea and throughout southeast Asia to South Africa, Australia, and many South Pacific islands. In the breeding season they are found in high arctic areas of Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia, Siberia, and Canada. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)


Sanderlings are found in distinct habitats in the breeding and winter seasons. In winter they are mainly found along sandy beaches, where they probe for food ahead of and behind waves in the active surf zone. They may also forage in mudflats, lagoons, and rocky intertidal areas. They are most common along ocean coasts, but are also found on sandy beaches of inland lakes, prairie potholes, and saline or alkaline flats. In the breeding season, sanderlings are found in the high arctic tundra, where they nest in a variety of habitats, but mainly rocky ridges or slopes near moist tundra or ponds. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

Physical Description

Sanderlings are small sandpipers with black legs and feet and a stout, short, black beak. They are from 18 to 20 cm in length and 40 to 100 g. In their non-breeding plumage these sandpipers have a very pale, whitish head, with pale gray upperparts and white underparts. In all plumages they have a dark shoulder patch that extends onto the throat and breast. In flight they have a white wing stripe that is bordered by black. In their breeding plumage the upperparts take on a reddish brown color and the head becomes more deeply colored. Juveniles are similar to adults, but have darker plumage on the upperparts. Females and males are similar, although males tend to be slightly more colorful. They are easily confused with other, similarly-sized sandpipers, but their black bill, pale head, and their sandy, coastal habits help to differentiate them. Birds in breeding plumage may be confused with red-necked stints (Calidris ruficollis), except that these birds lack any dark markings that extend on the neck and chest. Sanderlings also lack a hind toe, helping to distinguish them from other sandpipers, but this is difficult to discern in the field. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

Despite their exceptionally large geographic range, there are no described subspecies or regional variants. Some variation in plumage brightness and size has been described. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    40 to 100 g
    1.41 to 3.52 oz
  • Range length
    18 to 20 cm
    7.09 to 7.87 in


Mating systems in sanderlings are exceptionally flexible. They vary from monogamy to serial polyandry and polygyny, and can vary regionally and from year to year, depending on conditions. Flexibility in mating systems may be a way of responding to the unpredictability of resources in breeding habitats. However, some studies suggest regional differences in mating strategies may be fixed. Pair bonds are typically formed soon after sanderlings have arrived on the breeding grounds, generally in late May and early June. Males, and sometimes females, perform elaborate displays accompanied by vocalizations. Sometimes multiple birds display together. The display flight is described as a flight at 2 to 10 meters high with the body parallel to the ground and the head held down. Birds move their heads from side to side as they fly and rapidly flutter their wings, followed by a brief glide. The result resembles a fluttering hover and can last up to 2 minutes. This display flight is accompanied by a song. Once a pair bond is formed, the male uses a jerky walk and calls to the female, who calls back. Males and females are inseparable at this time. In some populations one or the other mate will abandon its partner soon after incubation starts. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

Females choose a nest site in the breeding area and construct a scrape on the ground in an open area and may line it with leaves and lichens. Egg-laying occurs in late June or early July. Females lay 4 greenish, brown spotted eggs, usually at intervals of about 1 per day. They begin to incubate when all eggs are laid. Incubation usually lasts 23 to 27 days but, if incubation is delayed, it may take up to 32 days. Once the eggs hatch, the parents carry the eggshells away from the nest and begin to brood the young. One day after hatching a parent will lead the young away from he nest. Fledging occurs at 12 to 14 days old and the young are independent at 17 to 21 days old. Females lay 1 to 2, rarely 3 clutches, depending on the region and local conditions. If a female lays 2 clutches, her male mate remains with the first brood and the female rears the second brood. Sanderlings breed in the second year after they hatch. Yearlings don't typically arrive on breeding grounds early enough to start breeding. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

  • Breeding interval
    Sanderlings lay 1 to 2 clutches each breeding season.
  • Breeding season
    Sanderlings breed from late May through July or early August each year.
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    23 to 32 days
  • Range fledging age
    12 to 14 days
  • Range time to independence
    17 to 21 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 years

Both parents incubate, brood, and protect the young. In areas or years when females can lay a second, or even third, clutch, they will abandon their male mate with the first clutches and then care for the final clutch on their own. Young are precocial at hatching and can walk and feed themselves. They are brooded and protected by the parents until a few days after they fledge, usually from 17 to 21 days after hatching. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


The longest recorded lifespan in a sanderling was 13 years. Adult survival is estimated at 83% yearly. Most natural mortality can be attributed to predation and cold stress on young. Sanderling populations are also impacted by human habitat degradation, especially in their beach habitats. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    13 (high) years


Sanderlings are found in tightly packed flocks during most of the year. Flocks can be just a handful of individuals to over 80. They flock with other shorebirds during winter and migration. They roost together on the ground and in the open, individuals are packed relatively tightly together when roosting. They can run very quickly, something that is especially noticeable when they are following crashing waves up and down the surf zone. Flocks take flight when disturbed and fly quickly to a nearby area of shore to continue foraging. Sanderlings spend much of their time foraging, from 40 to 85% of their daily budget. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

Sanderlings migrate northwards from March to June and southwards from July to October. Adults and juveniles are not segregated on wintering grounds and don't migrate separately. Populations do not seem to have established migration routes and there seems to be much mixing among populations over large distances. However, most migration occurs along coastlines and similar suitable habitats. The average migration distance is 77 degrees of latitude. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

Home Range

Sanderling space use and degree of territoriality varies substantially throughout their range. In winter, non-breeding season, most individuals are found in flocks, although some individuals will defend foraging territories. Both sexes and all ages may be territorial and the strength of the territorial response to an intruder varies as well. In some areas, territoriality seems to be a characteristic of migrating individuals and not over-wintering individuals. The degree of territoriality in a local population may also depend on the availability and abundance of prey and the presence or absence of avian predators. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

Communication and Perception

Sanderlings use visual displays and calls during courtship and breeding. Outside of the breeding season they are relatively quiet. It is not thought that they learn calls. Chicks give a chirp when startled that will cause their nestmates to run away, this chirp is similar to the sound used by adults to alert others of a predator ("chidik"). Adults also use a call to tell their hatchlings that the danger has passed. Various other calls are used when departing from the nest, in aggressive interactions, and during displays and copulation. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

Food Habits

Sanderlings eat aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates that are found in their preferred, sandy or tundra open habitats. In the breeding season, along pond or stream edges in tundra, insects are the primary prey, including especially craneflies, midges, and mosquitoes. During winter and migration, when most sanderlings are found along coastlines, they eat mainly small crustaceans, bivalves, polychaete worms, insects, and talitrid amphipods. Examples of important winter and migratory prey are sand crabs, isopods, and horseshoe crab eggs along the Atlantic coast. They will occasionally take plant seeds, buds, roots, and shoots when animal prey is not available. Sanderlings feed by probing with their bills or picking things off the ground. They run just ahead of and behind waves on beaches, probing the soft sand for prey as they go. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

  • Animal Foods
  • eggs
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • aquatic or marine worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • bryophytes
  • algae


When threatened by predators, sanderlings that are on a nest may crouch on the nest, flattened out, or run a short distance and then crouch on the ground, as if protecting a nest. They may also pretend to be injured or mob jaegers in groups. When young are hatched, parents alert young of danger with a sharp call, which causes them to freeze. The cryptic coloration of sanderlings helps to protect them against predation. In their arctic breeding areas, most predation is on eggs and young. Parasitic jaegers (Stercorarius parasiticus) and long-tailed jaegers (Stercorarius longicaudus) have been seen eating eggs and young and glaucous gulls (Larus hyperboreus), snowy owls (Nyctea scandiaca), wolves (Canis lupus), and arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) may also take eggs and young. In winter and migration, adults have been preyed on by merlins (Falco columbarius), peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus), cinereous harriers (Circus cinerea), burowing owls (Athene cunicularia), short-eared owls (Asio flammeus), Sechuran foxes (Lycalopex sechurae), house rats (Rattus rattus), laughing gulls (Larus atricilla), and domestic cats (Felis catus). (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Sanderlings are important predators of marine crustaceans in the intertidal zone. They are found in association with a wide variety of other shorebirds in foraging flocks in winter and migration, including dunlins (Calidris alpina), red knots (Calidris canutus), black-bellied plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), willets (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus), dowitchers (Limnodromus), ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres), semipalmated sandpipers (Calidris pusilla), western sandpipers (Calidris mauri), two-banded plovers (Charadrius falklandicus), and white-rumped sandpipers. There is competition among these birds for food items, and larger shorebirds, such as Franklin's gulls (Larus pipixcan) and gray gulls (Larus modestus), will steal prey from sanderlings. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

Sanderlings are parasitized by several nematode species that they get by eating aquatic crustaceans.

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Sanderlings are interesting members of arctic, temperate, and tropical coastal habitats. Historically they were considered a game species and were hunted for market. Arctic natives collected eggs to eat. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no adverse effects of sanderlings on humans.

Conservation Status

Sanderlings have a large range and large population sizes, so they are not considered threatened currently. They are protected as a migratory bird by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. Their breeding habitats in the arctic tundra are threatened by global climate changes, resulting in increased temperatures in the arctic. Their migratory and wintering habitats are threatened by oil spills, beach and wetland development, and other kinds of habitat degradation and contamination. Sanderling populations rely on the timing of seasonally abundant prey at migratory stopovers, such as the breeding of horseshoe crabs on the Atlantic coast of North America. Sanderlings feed on horseshoe crab eggs at a critical point in their migration and the loss of this resource may impact survival during migration and breeding success. Sanderlings will leave areas with heavy human or vehicle use of beaches, further reducing their available habitat. (Macwhirter, et al., 2002)


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

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Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


Referring to a mating system in which a female mates with several males during one breeding season (compare polygynous).


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.


having more than one female as a mate at one time

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.


uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


Macwhirter, B., P. Austin-Smith Jr., D. Kroodsma. 2002. Sanderling (Calidris alba). The Birds of North America Online, 653: 1-20. Accessed April 02, 2009 at