The gulls, plovers, sheathbills of the Antarctic, predatory skuas, and sandpipers are five of the nineteen families in the taxonomic order CHARADRIIFORMES (pronounced kah-RAH-dree-ih-FOR-meez).
The sandpipers are in the Scolopacidae (pronounced skoh-loh-PAY-suh-dee) family, a group of ninety-one species of wading birds in twenty-one genera occurring nearly worldwide (IOC World Bird List, version 2.3).
In Europe, fifty-six species of sandpipers in eighteen genera have occurred. Included among these birds are the large, long-billed godwits and curlews, the harlequin-like Ruddy Turnstone, and a variety of sandpiper species.
Sandpipers have an affinity for the water’s edge. The Sanderling is known for its habit of running on beaches to pursue and retreat from waves in its attempt to remain at the very edge of the water.
Sandpipers range from the sparrow-sized stints to the heron-sized curlews. In general, they have plump bodies, short tails, longish necks with small heads, and long, pointed wings for fast, long distance flight. Leg length varies among species although most have fairly long legs suited for wading. Sandpipers also demonstrate a wide variety of bill sizes and shapes that reflect different feeding behaviours. There are short, stubby bills, thin medium length bills, long, thin bills, and decurved bills.
Aside from the Ruddy Turnstone with its striking black, white, and orange plumage with red legs and bill, most sandpipers are plumaged in browns, grey, white and black although orangish colours are also shown by the breeding plumages of dowitchers and the Knot. In most species, these colours are combined for handsome, intricate patterns that act as camouflage and attract mates in the breeding season. During the winter, most species molt into drab grey and white plumages.
Sandpipers occur in a wide variety of aquatic habitats that include mudflats, beaches, shores of ponds, lakes and rivers, wet meadows, and marshes although the Woodcock frequents wet woodlands. Most members of this family breed in the extensive wetlands and bogs of the taiga and Arctic tundra, utilizing other wetland habitats during migration and winter.
Many members of this family are migrants, several species flying to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter.
The majority of sandpipers occur in flocks outside of the breeding season. They can often be seen foraging in mixed flocks for a variety of invertebrates and crustaceans, each species searching for food in a different manner or in different habitats. For example the Little Stint probes just below the mud at water’s edge, dowitchers probe deep into the mud further out in the water, and the Greenshank chases small fry with its bill held below the surface of the water.
Although most European sandpipers are not threatened, a few species are listed as near-threatened, and the Slender-billed Curlew has become critically endangered (and may even be extinct). The reasons for its decline are not fully known but are suspected to be related to destruction of grassland and wetland habitats on its probable breeding grounds in central Asia.
The Turnstone gets its name from its habit of using its wedge-shaped bill to flip over pebbles and bits of debris to get at insects and small crustaceans hiding underneath. It also feeds on carrion and will puncture and feed on eggs at tern colonies.