The Smaller Birds of the Sand

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Gulls and beach birds, Photo: Copyright Kelly Dean

The Smaller Birds of the Sand

By Kelly Dean

In the tropics, it’s the big white birds that seem to get all the attention. It makes sense; they stand out if you’re from a place where white birds are rare. Travel literature and movies often focus on the white birds of Florida and it’s understandable – it’s Miami Vice.

Where I’m from in the Midwest, there are no white birds, unless you’re lucky enough to catch a migrating bird, and that’s just seasonal. But there are more than just white birds in Florida. The whole state teams with interesting birds which will immediately catch your attention just as well.

At the beach, there are some small birds that can keep you entertained for hours. They are the unsung heroes of the beach. These include the sandpipers, sanderlings and even the black birds. They, along with the gulls are the most prominent, but generally least lauded within a state rich in wildlife, especially birds. There are thousands of different species of birds in Florida. I would just like to touch on a few you’re likely to see at the beach.

The Sandpiper Group

Technically, these first four smaller birds below are all in the sandpiper family. But I’m going to make a distinction due to their looks and behavior. They move with amazing speed but are somewhat unique and most veteran bird-watchers at the beach distinguish between them.

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Ruddy Turnstone, Photo: Copyright Kelly Dean

Ruddy Turnstone

This sandpiper is quite common. He’ll scurry out of your way when you’re walking along the beach in almost a skulking way. In comparison with the sanderling, he is smaller, slighter and has a shorter, sharper bill and yellowish legs. These two can be confused during breeding season due to the intense, brown, mottled or scalloped coloring. The turnstone has a blackish chest and stays attractively brown, white and black. Most importantly, he has a back toe. He’s not built for speed like the sanderling, he’s built to peck and prod the sand, both at the surf and higher on the beach. This gives viewers a great opportunity to see him, as he doesn’t just hover at the water’s edge. He’s plenty fast, but this isn’t his calling card.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper

This little fellow plays in the surf, but is not the speedster either. He can be mottled-brown colored much like a sanderling during one phase of their yearly cycle, but they are smaller, slighter, and have a rear toe like the turnstone, but their legs are black or dark gray – think skinnier than both. In winter they also fade to a whitish-gray color.

“Peeps” tend to stay back at the water line edge somewhat, lacking the speed of the sanderling; although, they will get close to the surf as well and scurry back and forth somewhat, they just don’t make a show of it — the sanderling is a showoff because they can cover the larger amount of ground in time. They are both a joy to watch.

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Sanderling, Photo: Copyright Kelly Dean

The Sanderling

These are the little athletes you see at the beach. The hyperactive sanderling is somewhat bigger than most other sandpipers. It has no back toe so it’s indeed built for speed. Its body is fuller, and its beak is longer and more robust — this bird is known for running back and forth as the waves come and go; they can be quite entertaining as they seek tasty morsels left by the waves. In breading season, they are mottled brown, much like the turnstone, then tend to favor the semipalmated look during the in-between phase, but ultimately become light brownish gray and nearly white in the winter, a subtly elegant look.

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Sanderlings, Photo: Copyright Kelly Dean

One can sit for hours just watching these birds do their little dance as they seek nourishment from the tides.

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Willet, Photo: Copyright Kelly Dean

The Willet

This bird displays all of the interesting habits of other sanderling family members. Yet with its longer legs and graceful coloring it, sets itself apart. They are not as common as the other two, but are equally charming. Note the very long beak. As one of the larger sandpipers, they stand quite prominently on the beach, like a sentry.

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Boat-tailed Grackle, Photo: Copyright Kelly Dean

The American Crow and Boat-tailed Grackle

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Boat-tailed Grackle, Photo: Copyright Kelly Dean

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Female Boat-tailed Grackle, Photo: Kelly Dean

These black-colored birds have no problem arguing with you about whether you should give them your french fries at the beachside bar. Don’t do it. First, it’s illegal to feed the wild birds at the beach. Secondly, the local businesses don’t want them to create a nuisance. They haven’t invented the birdie diaper yet, so it makes sense. I’m sure they would argue about that too.

The crow is common at the beach, along with a variety of smaller backyard birds as well, but the boat-tailed grackle is the most prominent and often adds to the symphony of bird calls that make the beach sound like the beach. The male is iridescent purple-blue-black and the female is brown and looks like a completely different bird, making her harder to identify. You’ll see them both at the beach.

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Photo: Copyright Kelly Dean

The Gull Group

Few people are going to message mom back home about the common gull at the beach. But once again, they are iconic and their presence is expected and appreciated. They help make the beach what it is. I love them. There are hundreds of varieties living in Florida, so it would be beyond the scope of this article to show them all, but they are the soldiers of the beach and stand guard over the surf.

If there are no gulls, then a great part of the beach experience is lost. So for that reason, watch, enjoy and marvel, but don’t feed them or leave anything behind that might harm them. That way, they will always be around to entertain us.

That goes for all the birds.

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Gulls, Photo: Copyright Kelly Dean

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