Sanderlings look very different in appearance during breeding season and winter and novice birders might even think they are two different species. I’ve heard people call nonbreeding Sanderlings “drab” and “plain” and while they might not be as colorful in nonbreeding plumage I personally wouldn’t call them drab or plain. I would, however; call them a challenge to expose properly and to get them in the frame because they are very active shorebirds when feeding.
The Sanderling above is in nonbreeding plumage and it was racing down the beach hunting for prey when I photographed it. At first I wasn’t happy with the motion blur of the bird’s right foot but the more I looked at this image the more I liked the motion blur because it indicates movement.
This image taken about a month later than the first image shows a Sanderling in breeding plumage, it was created during May which is about the time that the Sanderlings head north to their breeding grounds. Although the belly is still white and the legs and bill are still black the head, neck and back of the bird is quite different. Rufous is the color I think of when seeing a Sanderling in breeding plumage because that color is evident in the head, neck and back of the bird.
A side note; I often hear people say you must have a long (read expensive) lens to photograph birds and in some cases you do actually need a long lens to get frame filling images of birds however in some situations you can get those even with a shorter focal length. Both of the images above were taken with an inexpensive Nikkor 70-300mm VR lens and what made them possible is that these birds were habituated to human presence on the beach so they weren’t as nervous around me and I used very slow belly crawls to get close to them. By being low I appeared less threatening to them and at times the birds would come in so close I could not focus on them. Down & dirty can and does pay off.