Submitted by Steve Sass
Summer is nearly over, most of the schools are back in session, and the large crowds are thinning from the beaches. Now is a perfect time to enjoy some of the more peaceful aspects of the beach, and if you are like me, you might appreciate the quiet reflective time that the lake provides during this time of the year. It just so happens to also be a perfect time to look for some of the birds that use the shores of Lake Michigan as a migration stopover.
The waves that provide a soothing background to our thoughts are alive with activity for those of us who are perceptive enough to notice. Darting back and forth with each surging wave, are small birds fittingly called, “shorebirds.” The diversity and beauty of these birds is fascinating for those with curious minds, drawn to shorelines.
Over 30 species of shorebirds pass through the Indiana Dunes region every fall. One of the smaller and more common of these birds is the Sanderling (Calidris alba). Sanderlings belong to a family of birds called Sandpipers (Scolopacidae), which contains nearly 100 different species worldwide including several that are now extinct. If you are interested in learning more about the life that is sharing our beaches, this is a great bird to start with.
Sanderlings do not nest in our area, but they do pass through twice a year. In the spring, adult birds who are enroute to their breeding grounds in the arctic tundra can be found along the shore of Lake Michigan beginning in late April and lasting through early June, but the best time to see them is in the late summer when lingering adults and juveniles, on their way to their winter homes in the extreme southern United States, Caribbean, and South America, are commonly seen chasing the waves of the lake in search of invertebrate food that is churned up by the movement of the water crashing onto the beach. The food created from the beach ecosystem provides critical nutrition for these birds who must travel thousands of miles twice a year.
Shorebird identification can be difficult even for experts, but Sanderlings are one of the easier ones to identify. In the late summer and fall, they have lost their orangish breeding plumage, and are now usually entirely gray and white. The other identification feature that birders look for are the Sanderlings legs and bills, which are always black. In our area, they are rarely seen away from Lake Michigan. So if you want to see them, pick a quiet day and head to the beach. If you take the time to look and listen, you might even be surprised at all of the life that you’ll find there.
Sanderlings at a glimpse:
Size: 8” with 17” wingspan
Color: Rich, rufous spangling in the spring. Fall adults are light gray and white, lighter than any other shorebird. Fall juveniles are mottled black and white.
When to see them: The first week or two of September is typically the peak time of fall migration.
Where to spot them in the dunes: Almost anywhere along Lake Michigan, but very infrequently away from the lake. Miller Beach and Washington Park typically provide the highest concentrations. At Washington Park, look from them not only on the beach, but also in the rip rap on the east side of the pier where invertebrate life is rich.
According to Ken Brock’s Birds of the Indiana Dunes, the latest spring migrant was seen on June 7, 2003, and the earliest fall migrant was recorded on June 28, 1994, which means that there is only a three week time period in the dunes between birds that are heading north and birds that are heading south.
Also according the Birds of the Indiana Dunes, the latest fall migrant to be seen in the dunes was on December 23, 1980. This means that Sanderlings have been recorded in the dunes in every month of the year except for January, February and March.
Juvenile Sanderling at Washington Park