Clockwork birds, they are, racing the tide in fast forward, a tight little squadron of comical wind-up toys. No wonder that a young child, joining them on the beach at Dawlish Warren, was captivated by the shoreline antics of a moderately sized flock of foraging sanderlings. Unfortunately, this captivation manifested itself in an urge to chase, setting the flock off on repeated boomerang flights over the sea and back, each bird deftly manoeuvring a tight turning circle on bold white-barred, black-edged wings. Unfortunately, I say, because as endearing and engaging as it may be to us, for a flock of sanderlings beachcombing is serious work.
The sanderlings made for one of the most entertaining sights in a Devon weekend packed with wildlife highlights from porpoises to pied flycatchers via pearl-bordered fritillaries and pimpernels. Perhaps one of the less expected, too, as I usually associate a flock of feeding sanderlings or indeed waders of any sort with autumn, winter and early spring birding. But I forget that depending on the species of bird and where in the world it intends to breed, the productive part of the year begins anywhere between January and late June. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to visit the coast at this time of year and find flocks of Arctic breeding waders only just coming into full summer plumage – they are still, in some cases, several thousand kilometres from where they will eventually nest.
This is part of the magic of birds, how they connect us to the world at large. Whilst we may feel that spring has been with us for an age, the tundra where these sanderlings will breed is only now beginning to bloom and produce the quantity of flies and seeds they’ll need to successfully raise young. With so much energy about to be expended on the last stages of their migration, and on nesting when they arrive, no wonder this little group of birds continued – and perhaps continues – to hang around the mild and nutrient-rich English coast, waiting until the last possible moment to make a dash for Greenland, or wherever they might be setting a bearing for.
Sanderlings are one of the select group of species, mostly wide-ranging, water-loving birds, that I’ve seen as ‘natives’* on both sides of the Atlantic. Last December I watched them feed on the landward shore of Assateague Island, a windswept dune system on the Atlantic coast of Maryland and Virginia. There they formed the same style of tight, collaborative flock, feeding as busily as any bird you’ve ever seen and playing chicken with the waves. It’s a scene played out on an impressively large swathe of the world’s coast: sanderlings are one of the most widely distributed birds in the world with a wintering range that’s remarkably cosmopolitan, ranging from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and from South Africa to India and New Zealand. Imagine a migration route that begins in the furthest extremes of South America and ends well beyond the Arctic Circle – in actual fact, the arduous-seeming potential journeys I’ve plotted on this map are as nothing compared to what the species is capable of.
When their journey north is complete and each pair has found its own private scrape in the rock, they’ll resume a private existence, striving only for individual survival and the survival of their young. That’s the stuff of instinct, natural selection, how we all made it this far and I suppose the thing, at root, which lies beneath everything the sanderlings do. But in the meantime they exist together – bird with bird, and, where they forage with dunlins and other small shorebirds, species with species, in lives of freewheeling nomadism on the shores of seven continents. In an age when many countries appear to be turning inward, these global citizens are not just entertaining to watch but may even have a thing or two to teach us squabbling humans about cooperation and coexistence.
*Species which naturally occur on both continents as opposed to those such as Canada goose or house sparrow which were introduced from America to Europe or vice versa.