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Shorebirds can cause headaches. There are a variety of reasons for this. Simply seeing them is complicated by a myriad of interacting factors like distance, heat waves, wind, beach-goers, that forgotten tide chart, olfactory overload, and that black ooze that many a shorebirder knows all too intimately. And while optics have improved considerably, tripods are made for photographers leaving us with heavy, jerky, unstable things that take too long to set up and rarely withstand the destructive abilities of TSA and airline baggage handlers (or even the bumpy road to get to that shorebird spot). [Venture capitalists, a world of opportunity awaits you in making a birding tripod!] But, seeing shorebirds well is only part of the problem. Throw in several different plumages, molt and feather wear, and it's easy to see why many people find shorebirds challenging.
In this photo, we're lucky. We have no black muck. We don't have to deal with a defective tripod. And the bird is close. Really close. Of course, compared to in the field, it's fair to say that our bird suffers from an acute case of immobility, and is stuck in a rather odd pose, but even that's not too bad.
The first step in dealing with shorebirds is to get the bird in the right group. This is a fairly chunky shorebird with a short neck and a short or medium length bill (while we can't see all of the bill, the width and position relative to the head are enough to tell us the bill is medium-length. From this alone we can eliminate the majority of shorebirds - from plovers to Tringas (yellowlegs etc.) to dowitchers to, well, anything that is not a Calidris.
At this point, let's look at the plumage, which appears uniform with relatively fresh feather edges. Throw in the bright coloration and we know we are dealing with either an adult in alternate (breeding) plumage or a juvenile plumage.
Now things may become a bit tricky. The extensive rufous coloration to the upperparts rule out the great majority of Calidris. Even the mostly brightly-colored Western Sandpiper does not have this extent of rufous on the upperparts (and one this bright, would also show extensive dark markings to the flanks). The extensive rufous coloration includes the tertials and some grater coverts, which eliminates Red-necked Stint. This leaves us Sanderling, Dunlin and Curlew Sandpiper. Both Curlew Sandpiper and Dunlin should show more markings on the underparts, with a bird this heavily patterned. Even from this angle, one would see a black belly on Dunlin, and dark rufous coloration and dark barring on Curlew Sandpiper. This leaves us with Sanderling. Looking more carefully, the crisp white feather edges to the tertials and greater coverts, and pattern of the scapulars are a perfect match for some of the more brightly colored Sanderling, from mid spring to early summer.
This Sanderling was photographed in Cape May, NJ in May of 2006.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the July Bird Photo Quiz—Sanderling:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.