Piping Plovers are on the short list of birds who nest directly on the sand of New England beaches. Given the high human traffic on most beaches during their breeding season and the outright loss of habitat due to shoreline reshaping, it's a wonder that some of these tiny shorebirds manage to eke out a living and successfully raise young each year. Maine Audubon reports that in the entire state of Maine in 2013 there were only 44 nesting pairs, not all of whom fledged young. Please take care when sharing the beach with these threatened creatures.
Sanderlings (center, and larger birds pictured) are one of the few species of shorebirds (Dunlin included) present on New England beaches throughout the white season. In fact, Sanderings can be found on most any beach on earth, where they can be seen running back-and-forth with crashing waves as they feed on various invertebrates. Classified in the genus Calidris, Sanderlings (SAND, in 4-letter bird code) are relatives of Semi-palmated Sandpipers, who are the smaller birds pictured. This mixed flock was resting on a Biddeford Pool beach.
In New England, there are three species of small, similar-looking sandpipers known collectively as peeps. Least Sandpipers, who are indeed the smallest peeps, tend to outnumber the other two at inland locations. Along the coast, Semipalmated Sandpipers (pictured above) usually outnumber Leasts, and Western Sandpipers are typically a distant third in abundance.
The term palmated means webbed, so, as you would expect, this species has toes connected by partial webbing. I often refer to these birds in short as Semi-sands. The nickname Semi-pals wouldn't differentiate them from Semipalmated Plovers, who can be called Semi-ploves for short.
Most shorebirds vacate New England by November, but Dunlin can be found throughout the white season, foraging in small flocks on coastal beaches and mudflats. I identified my first flock of Dunlin in early March of 2012 in Kennebunkport, Maine. I photographed today's feature bird in Biddeford Pool on September 22, 2013.
Semipalmated Plovers breed in parts of Canada and are found in our area only during migration. They can be seen hunting for invertebrates along coastal and inland shorelines in May and early June (on their way to their breeding grounds) and again from mid-July through October (before heading farther south for winter).