Sandpipers, Plovers, Lapwings Etc

These medium to small sized Shore Birds are mostly quite well known to most birders. Although I have photographed many of the species I don't have many images which illustrate the behavioural differences which help to define their individual niches.

Some photographs which Liz M took show Red Knot, Purple Sandpiper and Curlew Sandpiper feeding. Nelson did an interesting piece about the Piping Plover. If you click on Your Pages and then open Liz's Page and Nelson's Page you can see these two articles.

These are the birds I include.

Sandpipers (25), Stints (4), Tattlers (2), Turnstones (2), Knots (2), Sanderling (1), Willet (1), Dunlin (1) and Ruff (1) giving a total of 39 species listed in family Scolopacidae.

Plovers (36), Dotterel (5), Killdeer (1) and Wrybill (1) as well as Lapwings (23) giving a total of 66 species listed in family Charadriidae.

I also include Oyster Catchers (10), Sheathbills (3) and the Crab-Plover of family Dromadidae (1) total 14.

Giving a total of 119 species.

Feeding Habitats and Behaviour.

The feeding techniques employed by these birds provide an excellent demonstration of sub-habitats and niches within a larger habitat. It is not unusual to see many of these birds close together in a patch of shore-line of say 10 to 20 square metres. If we consider such an area, starting in the water and moving gradually through the inter-tidal region on to the land we see a typical picture as follows:-

Shallow Water.

  • Solitary Sandpiper - feeds in shallow water where it uses its feet to disturb aquatic invertebrates and insect larvae.
  • Stilt Sandpiper - although it has long legs it prefers to feed in shallow water where it probes deeply for invertebrates.
  • Dunlin - will go into shallow water but likes to probe mudflats and saltpans for aquatic crustaceans, worms and molluscs.
  • Curlew Sandpiper - will go into shallow water. It plucks aquatic invertebrates from the soft mud surface of the shore-line.
  • Ruff - normally feeds using a steady walk and pecking action, selecting food items by sight, but it will also wade deeply and submerge its head. On saline lakes in East Africa it often swims and picks items off the surface. It will feed at night as well as during the day.

Water edge, lower wave zone.

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  • Sanderling (right) - wave chasers on sandy sea beaches, snatch invertebrates from incoming waves before the next wave arrives. I took this photograph on the beach at Cape May, New Jersey, USA.

Exposed, moist mudflats, inter-tidal zone.

  • Red Knot - probe the inter-tidal mud for crustaceans and molluscs. They have their beaks immersed as far as they can go. They often move forward creating the impression that they are "ploughing" furrows in their search for prey.
  • Western Sandpiper - probes mud and shallow water for aquatic invertebrates, worms and crustaceans.
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper - probes soft mud for aquatic invertebrates, worms and crustaceans.
  • Eurasian Oystercatcher (below, right) - these birds walk on mud and rocks in inter-tidal zone searching for exposed molluscs. I took this image at West Kirby in the UK.
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Exposed, drier mudflats, upper wave zone.

  • Baird's Sandpiper - walks slowly picking insects and invertebrates from the surface.

Rocks and seaweed on shore-line.

  • Purple Sandpiper - these birds become more active as the receding tide uncovers the rocks enabling them to sight and pluck their prey, which are arthropods and crustaceans, from the surface. They are not seen on the inter-tidal mud which is the province of the Knot.
  • Rock Sandpiper - forages on rocky coasts eating insects, molluscs, marine worms, also some plant material. It roosts on rocks near its feeding grounds just above the high tide spray.
  • Ruddy Turnstone - probes under and flips over rocks, shells and seaweed searching for aquatic invertebrates.
  • Wandering Tattler - favours rocky coasts where they forage actively, making jerky bobbing movements.

Dry mud flats, some vegetation.

  • Least Sandpiper - tidal mudflats, probes and pecks for insects, crustaceans and occasionally seeds.
  • Pectoral Sandpiper - has a preference for vegetated wet shore areas, including meadows, probes and pecks for insects, invertebrates, seeds and plant materials.

Sandy or shingle shores.

  • Piping Plover - only found on undisturbed coastal beaches, run and stop technique, eats worms and insects from surface.
  • Ringed Plover - shingle shores, prefer to keep feet dry, find food by sight, pluck from surface, don't probe, run in stop / start fashion,

Shores, cultivated fields.

  • Buff-breasted Sandpiper - prefers drier habitats, stands still watching for insects and spiders to come within its range.
  • Upland Sandpiper - favours grassy meadows, runs in stop / start fashion, feeding on beetles and especially grasshoppers.
  • Little Ringed Plover - avoids coastal areas, furtive feeder in contrast with the more confident Ringed Plover.
  • Northern Lapwing - often seen on farmland and pastures in Europe but can also be seen on rocky shore lines. They watch for nearby movement and then run to snatch their prey.
  • Southern Lapwing - this bird is the counterpart of the Northern Lapwing and can be found in South America.
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  • Masked Lapwing - found in mudflats, grassland and urban parks. I photographed the Masked Lapwing in Cairns, Australia.
  • Banded Lapwing - open grassland, bare plains and arable land.

Streams and Rivers.

  • Common Sandpiper - feeds quite openly along the edges and banks of streams and rivers even when they are dry and stony.
  • Green Sandpiper - found in similar habitats to the Common Sandpiper but is more secretive.
  • Wood Sandpiper - more confiding than the Green.

Plovers and Lapwings.

Plovers are found in all the major regions of the world. Habitats favoured by Lapwings are found mainly in Africa, Australasia and Europe with just two in South America.

Although both are generally called “Shore Birds” some Plovers and a lot of Lapwings are grassland birds with no special affinity for water. Both rely on sight to locate food which is usually insect larvae and worms for birds in a terrestrial habitat and small aquatic animals for shore-line birds. Lapwings are commonly seen in farmlands and pastures and tend to be sedentary but some are found close to water or in wet country. Their feeding strategy is to scan for movement nearby and suddenly run to pluck their prey. They never probe like the Sandpipers and Shanks. Their beaks are too short.

Pluvialis species appear to have originated in the Northern Hemisphere. Vanellus and Charadrius species probably evolved in the tropics of the Southern Hemisphere. They often favour dry shingle or sandy areas where their plumage provides camouflage.

The Birds of East Africa field guide splits the Lapwings as follows:-

• Dry country – Crowned, Black-headed, Northern, Black-winged, Senegal, Brown-chested.

• Wetland – Blacksmith, Spur-winged, Long-toed, African Wattled, White-crowned.