The sandpipers are a large and diverse group of shorebirds. They are widely distributed throughout the world, and are common even in the High Arctic. Sandpipers live in a variety of different habitats- terrestrial, marine and freshwater- and generally spend time in all three over the course of the year. They are typically found in open areas, often, but not always, near water. This family includes two subfamilies: the sandpipers (Scolopacinae) and the phalaropes (Phalaropodinae).
Sandpipers are wading birds that tend to have cryptically patterned plumage that enables them to blend into their surroundings. Their plumage ranges from white and pale buff to grey, chestnut brown or black, often with streaks or spots. Both sexes share similar markings. They can be distinguished from other bird families by their long, slender bill, bare upper legs, and long toes. The long legs and toes of sandpipers are an adaptation for running along shores and wading in shallow water. Their long bills allow them to probe through the water to the mud below in search of invertebrates; species that forage in deeper water tend to have proportionally longer bills and legs. Most sandpipers migrate and tend to be gregarious, associating in flocks both with members of their own species and with other species.
Phalaropes spend the majority of their time swimming, rather than walking or wading along the shoreline. Their feet are well adapted to help them swim, having both lobes on their toes to push water, and webs between their toes. They also have very dense plumage on their underside to keep their bodies warm in cold water. This plumage traps pockets of warm air against the bird’s body, adding warmth as well as helping it to float. Phalaropes feed on small aquatic crustaceans and insect larvae by spinning on the spot in the water to stir up organisms and then pecking with their long, thin beaks. The vortex created in the water by the spinning bird sucks organisms and particles upwards towards the surface, where they are more easily reached. This behaviour- which is made possible partly by the phalarope’s unusually high buoyancy- is unique among birds.
Although in most birds, such as the peacock, the female is much duller than the male, this situation is reversed in phalaropes. Females are much brighter, and slightly larger, than males, and do not participate in caring for the young in any way and therefore do not require camouflage. Instead, females defend territories and use their bright colours to compete for males, who are well camouflaged by their inconspicuous plumage as they build the nests and incubate the eggs. Females often have multiple mates and many nests at once.