To refresh your memory, here is the photo from February’s Bird Quiz. It was taken in Texas during the month of January. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
To begin with, it’s pretty obvious that this is some sort of shorebird. It’s standing on sand, and there’s water in the background. It has that shorebird shape and a relatively long, narrow beak. Plus, its general coloring is like that of at least a dozen other shorebird species. Now we know what part of the field guide to consult.
We can also narrow down the possible species by eliminating all shorebirds with long, stilt-like legs and/or very long, probing bills. We’re left with the smaller plovers and sandpipers. Now the fun begins.
I originally thought this was one of the little plovers. It has that short, squat look that I always associate with them. When I consulted my field guide, however, I realized I was wrong. The white underside, black beak, and black legs doesn’t fit any of the plover descriptions. Piping Plovers have yellow legs and a much shorter beak. Same with Semipalmated Plovers. Snowy Plovers have gray legs, but their coloring is much more even, and their bills are very thin and pointed. It also has dark cheeks, and this bird’s face is white. Wilson’s plover has a similar bill, but it also has dull yellow legs. So—it’s not a plover.
Next I turned to the sandpipers. These birds come in so many shapes and sizes, it takes a lot of comparing to sort them all out. Legs and bills may be long or short, in varying combinations. A few have distinctive coloring, even in winter. I was looking for one that had short, black legs a black bill about an inch in length, and could easily be found in Texas in the winter. (There were dozens of these birds running up and down the beach, so it wasn’t a rarity.)
That narrowed the choices considerably.
Scale is hard to tell from a photo, but it’s pretty clear that this isn’t a huge bird. But is it six inches or eight inches? Even in the field, unless you have something of known size for comparison, it’s hard to tell size differences of just an inch or two. For completeness, I’ll discuss all the smaller birds with black legs and shorter bills.
This little guy could be a White-rumped Sandpiper… except they usually only pass through Texas during migration. By January, they should be safe and warm in their winter range. The same problem applies to Baird’s and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Both these latter species also have darker feathers on their upper breast (Sibley calls it “dingy”) and our bird lacks that coloring.
Western Sandpipers are found on the Texas coast in winter, but their bill is longer, and droops slightly at the end. Checking the photo, there’s no droop.
That leaves one last species, and happily, everything fits. This bird is a Sanderling. According to my field guide, Sanderlings have short-bills (for a shorebird) and black legs. Check. Nonbreeding adults have pure white undersides and very pale gray (but not solid gray) backs. Check. The facial markings match the illustrations. Check. They spend the winter on the Texas coast (and pretty much every other beach in the U.S.). Check.
A photograph doesn’t display a bird’s behavior, but frequently behavior is a defining characteristic that can confirm a hunch. Most sandpipers are waders, but this bird, along with its companions, was happily running all over the beach, hurrying down to poke in the wet sand for edible tidbits, then chased back by the next wave. Every few minutes the small flock would fly to another spot a few yards away and resume their activity. I’m not aware of any other species that so energetically feeds in this way. Check!