Sanderlings in breeding and nonbreeding plumage

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Sanderling in nonbreeding plumageSanderling in nonbreeding plumage – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 200, Nikkor 70-300mm VR at 300mm, natural light

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.

Sanderling in breeding plumageSanderling in breeding plumage – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/500, ISO 400, Nikkor 70-300mm at 300mm, natural light

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.



  1. Tammy Karr December 9, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    Great images Mia! The Sanderling looks sharp in its breeding plumage!

    • Mia McPherson December 12, 2012 at 7:04 pm

      Thanks Tammy, they do look sharp in breeding plumage.

  2. Laurence Butler December 9, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Super sharp shots of Sanderlings!

  3. Merrill Ann Gonzales December 9, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Mia, The way you compare these two to me makes me feel that the nonbreeding plumage is much more interesting in its patterns and contrasts. I’m thrilled with the action you caught… sometimes photographic excellence and destroy the subtleties in great photography. As in music, you have to know when to break the rules to rise to greatness…. looks like you’re there. Many thanks for sharing.

    • Mia McPherson December 12, 2012 at 7:03 pm

      Thank you Merrill, thank you for all your encouragement.

  4. Sherry in MT December 9, 2012 at 10:06 am

    Very true, down and dirty for birds is a plus. Now if I could just get up and down a bit easier! haha Love the shots and I too would think they were 2 different birds.

    • Mia McPherson December 12, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      Thanks Sherry, getting up out of soft sand can be a challenge but well worth it for the low angle.

  5. Azstu December 9, 2012 at 9:03 am

    wonderful pictures Mia

    • Mia McPherson December 12, 2012 at 6:58 pm

      Thank you as always Stu.

  6. Bob Bushell December 9, 2012 at 8:50 am

    Beautiful, I’m always happy to see them running along the beaches, pretty lkittle things.

    • Mia McPherson December 12, 2012 at 6:58 pm

      Thank you Bob, they are pretty.

  7. Bosque Bill December 9, 2012 at 8:26 am

    MIa, I struggle with peeps (probably because in NM I don’t get much practice), but was on the coast last month and got a number of Sanderling photos. Due to that recent experience I’m wondering if your first photo above is rather a juvenile instead of adult non-breeding? I’m thinking this due to the spangling on its back, whereas the non-breeding feathers are all about the same color, giving a smoother appearance. Looking at your Sanderling album I see lots of adult non-breeding with the smooth backs.

    Beautiful photos as I’ve come to expect from you!

    • Mia McPherson December 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm

      Hi Bill!

      The spangling on the juveniles is fairly pronounced, it sort of looks like black diamond in a field of white, the first adult is starting to molt into breeding plumage though and that is why the back isn’t completely pale gray.

      • Bosque Bill December 13, 2012 at 7:27 am

        Ah. Thanks for the explanation.

  8. Julie G. December 9, 2012 at 7:06 am

    Great comparison photographs, Mia! It’s always fun to see these tiny birds zipping along the shoreline. Capturing the Sanderlings at a low angle really enhances the photographs.

    • Mia McPherson December 12, 2012 at 6:55 pm

      Thanks Julie, they are a lot of fun to watch zipping back and forth while trying to avoid the incoming waves.

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