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Sandpipers are a diverse family

Wildlife photography has awoken a real fascination for the subject matter in me. As I've said before in blogs, I really don't like to do things halfheartedly, and have spent a lot of time reading books and asking Mr Google about the birds and other wildlife - and landscapes, trees, clouds and buildings for that matter - I have been capturing. I thought it might be interesting to document some of this as well as the pictures themselves.


I'm pretty lucky to live where I do, because we see a diverse range of birds all year round, from breeding birds to winter visitors to those on their migratory passage. Montrose Basin often attracts some genuine rarities, one of which will feature in this blog post (along with a terrible photo).


A little warning here - this blog has been in my head for a while, and I have a proclivity for verbose meanderings once I get started. You might want a cup of tea. Or a pot maybe.

So sandpipers then. In my short time watching and photographing birds, winter has become a favourite time, primarily because of two of my favourite birds, purple sandpipers and sanderlings.


Sanderlings doing what they do best, running!


In the unexpected afternoon sunshine of New Year's Eve, I went to Montrose beach to look for sanderlings. It was about 40 minutes after high tide, so the ideal opportunity to watch them feed. Within 10 minutes I saw a group of 8 birds dodging the surf, but a dog walker walking the other way disturbed them. I had to walk another 3 miles to catch up with them again!! Sanderlings are typically found in the winter in the UK on sandy beaches, feeding in the surf.


A group of sanderlings is called a 'grain'.


Perhaps the most fascinating thing I have discovered is that almost all of the collective terms for birds and animals come from a single book called The Book of St Albans (Boke of Seynt Albans) dating from 1496, and believed to have been penned by a nun called Juliana Bern

ers. The book contains essays on hawking, hunting, heralding and angling, a long list of collective terms. I have no idea if a grain of sanderlings comes from her list or if it's a more modern addition.


Anyway, I finally caught up with the grain of sanderlings and began taking some shots. There is a technique to this, based on their brilliantly entertaining feeding methods. They eat small marine worms, crustaceans and molluscs that are buried in the sand, so they follow the receding waves and plunge their beaks into the soft wet sand to get as deep as possible. They then, almost with choreographed synchronicity, turn and run from the next incoming wave. They rarely take flight, preferring this comical and remarkably fast scamper. The sanderling has no hind toe, which allows them to run so fast.


Sanderlings feeding in the soft sand as a wave recedes, leaving the sand wet and easy to dig into.


Full sprint away from the incoming wave.


Herein lies the technique to get photos of them. They are pretty tolerant birds, provided you don't corner them. They will continue their pattern of chasing the receding waves and then fleeing the incoming ones but work along the beach. If you carefully follow them towards the sea, they will actually often turn back and run towards you or alongside you, and you can get progressively closer without them taking flight. These images were taken at 400mm on a Canon 7Dmk II (so equivalent 640mm) but are barely cropped at all. The birds are very small, and must have been only around 20 feet from me.


Another dog walker was sadly now approaching, and in an attempt to avoid the dog getting too close to the birds I walked towards them and said hello. The gentleman said 'they look like interesting birds, are they sandpipers?' and I said 'no, they are sanderlings.' Only when I got home did I notice from the bird book that they actually are a member of the sandpiper family.


Furthermore, I realised just how many birds fall under the umbrella of 'sandpipers', and how incredibly diverse they are as a family. As any good birder or wildlife photographer (or both) would do, I began to make a mental checklist of the ones I have seen and the ones I haven't. Not only are members of the family diverse in looks, they have completely different habitats, breeding patterns. It seems utterly bizarre that they can all be classed in the same family.


I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise, when the purple sandpiper is not completely dissimilar in habitat, feeding habits or size, but more on them later. I might have mentioned them being possibly my favourite bird before. I suppose it always baffled me that they were called sandpipers because they were so different from what was to my mind a typical sandpiper.

The typical sandpiper for me was always the common sandpiper, redshank, greenshank, and larger waders like bar tailed and black tailed godwits, along with a plethora of less common birds which I have not had a chance to see, like curlew sandpiper, green sandpiper, wood sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, spotted redshank, whimbrel, and many more.

Is it time to mention the lesser yellowlegs yet?


A lesser yellowlegs, taken at dawn in appalling light from distance. A national rarity, and not seen in Montrose since 1978.


He was here for about 10 days, and drew some interesting twitchers to the area. One chap I spoke to slept in his van for 5 days to catch a sight of it (his distinctive aroma backed up this claim), and was so excited when I met him on his way into the car park and showed him this picture on the camera. I didn't have the heart to tell him it had flown off into the sunrise just after i took it!


Greenshank at the Lurgies.


Greenshanks are considerably less common than redshanks, but there is a small breeding population in Scotland and some wintering birds, as well as more birds stopping during migration. I have seen two birds relatively often seen at the Lurgies, and I expect they are wintering here.


A redshank taken from the Tayock hide at the basin.


Although there is a breeding population, most birds are winter visitors, predominantly from summer breeding grounds in Iceland. Montrose basin is prime winter habitat for them, and fairly large numbers are usually present. Redshanks can be a frustrating bird to photograph, as they are flighty and easily startled. They almost always see you before you see them, and swiftly depart the scene with a high pitched warning cry that alerts every living thing in the surrounding area of the presence of a human. They quite often feed alone in shallow water or mud at low tide, so if you can remain hidden - or in a simple hide like I was here, they are quite photogenic.


Curlew taken at Rossie Spit.


Curlews are abundant in and around Montrose, particularly in winter where numbers are bolstered by wintering birds from the continent. Large birds, they are easily identified by their long downward curved beaks, feeding in shallow waters and mud at low tide, as well as in arable fields around the basin. During the summer they are often found inland where they breed.


The bird pictured above was photographed in a field just south of the visitors centre at St Cyrus Nature Reserve. The curlew has a ring on its leg, which I reported. A week later I received the following response from the University of Helsinki in Finland. This bird, which was part of a flock, is wintering here from Norway over 1000 miles away!



Black tailed godwit, also at Rossie Spit at low tide.


It is hard to distinguish a black tailed godwit from a bar tailed godwit until they fly away and you can see the tail. This bird was more than happy to keep feeding in the low tide mud at a safe distance though. Their long beaks let them feed deep into the mud. UK wintering birds are generally from Icelandic breeding grounds, but interestingly a small UK breeding population migrate to Africa in the winter!


Despite these birds all being visible in and around Montrose predominantly in winter, the common sandpiper - not dissimilar in appearance to the redshanks or greenshanks, is a summer breeding bird that migrates away from Scotland in the winter. While I have seen them at the basin, I have yet to capture any serviceable photographs so that's a challenge for 2018.


It's reasonably easy to appreciate these birds being categorised as part of the same family. While they vary in size there are similarities between them all. Wading birds, long beaks to dig into the sand, long legs to walk in the soft mud of estuaries. They seem so very different from sanderlings in their appearance and behaviour though.


I mentioned purple sandpipers earlier on. I might also have mentioned that they are my favourites. Have I mentioned that? These birds are just pure entertainment to watch, and an absolute marvel of the natural world.


Aren't purple sandpipers BRILLIANT!!! (Enthusiastic Manchester teenager from the Fast Show voice)


Purple Sandpipers feed on rocky shorelines, nipping small crustaceans and winkles off the rocks as the waves crash in. Similar in a way to the sanderlings, they use the waves, particularly as the tide recedes, to enable them to grab the food, but in an altogether more fearless way and more perilous setting.


I've lost count of the number of times I've been photographing birds or seascapes and suddenly found myself knee deep in a rogue wave. It's usually followed by raucous laughter from some hound walker on dry land who I then swear at under my breath for witnessing my embarrassment. Some people say every 7th wave is bigger than the rest. This is, in my humble opinion, codswallop. Waves are surely one of the most random things on this planet, and a perfect example of chaos theory in action.


Unless you are a purple sandpiper.


These tiny birds feed on jagged rocks, happily hopping and chirping away, amid what are often fairly fierce breaking waves that would sweep an amply proportioned human such as myself into the sea quite easily. If you watch one bird carefully, it will often scamper and hop to a higher rock, just in time for a wave to break a fraction below it, and quickly dart back down to grab a tasty morsel as it retreats. Occasionally they take flight from a larger wave, often in perfect synchronisation with the rest of the flock. They NEVER get caught out. It is clear to me that these little birds have an intrinsic understanding of the movement of the sea, and to them the breaking waves are entirely predicable. It is quite simply fascinating to watch.


I shot this short video on Montose beach at the end of November, of the purple sandpipers feeding in the surf.


Couple this with their beautiful colouration, orange beaks and pretty eyelash-like feathers, along with the happiest of chirping noises as they constantly communicate as a flock (I believe the correct collective term for the purple sandpipers is a 'time step' - how fitting!), and you really do have a bird that I could spend hours on end watching.


Any excuse to post ANOTHER picture of a purple sandpiper.


We have a small group of them that winter in Montrose, on the groynes at Annat Bank at the entrance to the harbour. They tend to be seen together with a group of turnstones, which are themselves a fascinating member of the sandpiper family - and yet completely different again.


A turnstone doing what turnstones do. Turning stones.


Turnstones, or ruddy turnstones to give them a full name, feed along the shorelines, turning stones to get to crustaceans and molluscs underneath, and their shorter and stronger beaks are clearly designed for exactly this use. Wintering around the coasts of the UK, they are relatively common, but often hard to see due to their supreme camouflage. Only when you are quite close and see them darting around the rocks do they become apparent.


Turnstones are often best seen feeding at low tides among seaweed covered rocks and pebbles. However, at higher tides, they are often seen amongst the flock of purple sandpipers, and appear to roost together on the groynes on Montrose beach. Perhaps safety in numbers is the key reason for this.


What I find quite interesting, however, is that when the tide recedes, and the turnstone begin to feed, they are often joined by dunlin. Dunlin are perhaps the 'missing link' in my tale of Montrose's sandpipers, because they can be found both on the beach AND at the basin among the redshanks and curlews.


Dunlin are not dissimilar in looks to a sanderling, but have a slightly downward curved beak, browner feathers and an altogether different character. In summer plumage they have a distinctive dark square on their underside, which fades in winter but generally doesn't completely disappear.


These dunlins were feeding at low tide at Annat Bank, alongside two turnstones.

Dunlins sift through the shallow waters looking for food. They do not show any of the fearless surf dodging tactics of the sanderlings or purple sandpipers, but actually act more like miniature redshanks or curlews, walking slowly along in calm water occasionally popping their beaks into the water to grab a morsel.


Dunlins are the most common member of the sandpiper family, with over 350,000 birds wintering around the coasts of the UK. However, in Montrose, while they are often seen amongst the turnstones on the beach, are equally visible amongst the larger sandpipers in the basin.


This may look like a coastal scene, but these dunlins are roosting on a discarded car tyre that has become covered in seaweed at the salt pans on the south side of the basin. They were among large flocks of curlews, oystercatchers and redshanks, until the rising tide took their tyre away from them and they moved on.


So that is my tale of sandpipers in Montrose. I've yet to see a knot here, although I believe they do winter on the basin.


This image of a knot, along with a dunlin and two ringed plover was taken at Newburgh beach, not Montrose. The knot is also an interesting bird, because it resembles the smaller birds like dunlins, but is closer in size to the larger sandpipers like redshanks and greenshanks. I guess a Montrose knot is also on the list of 'must photograph' for 2018 too then.


I've written the best part of 2,500 words here, your tea has gone cold, if indeed you are still awake, and I haven't even started on snipes and phalaropes, which are often bundled with sandpipers as part of the same family group! Perhaps that is a tale for another blog post.

Thank you so much for reading this short novel of a blog, but as I said, it's a topic that's been on my mind for a while, and I do find that writing things down is an excellent way to learn and understand. It's as much for my benefit as anything, and it gives some form of context to the photography that I enjoy so much.


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© 2020 By Ben Freeman