Country diary: dazzled by the dance of the sanderlings

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Those dots of waders will be kettled up the beach as the tide rises, but my time is short. So I hoist the scope and set off into an early morning sun that’s gauzed by a membrane of cloud. In front of me, the ribbed sand stretches into a haze of silver and taupe. The sea is so far out that it could be a mirage. To the south-east, the Mournes rear like a desert range in the austere light.

Oystercatchers stipple the foreshore. At the flock’s far edge, a cloud shimmers into the air. Dunlin? Knot? Too quick and deft for me to tell. I plod on, veering away from the tide’s creep to mitigate any further alarm. Then I see a huddle running with zippy calls over the sweeping cambers of sand. Their plumage segues from soft grey to gleaming white, intensifying the jet black of eyes, bills and those whirring legs, which keep such synchronous pace that the birds are a single flow. They bob into a depression. When they emerge – a little jolt of surprise – they’re coming straight for me. I lower the binoculars. No. They’re avoiding those surly-looking herring gulls. Suddenly, like flitters of foil, the sanderlings dazzle into flight.

Tyrella Beach, Co Down

I arrive at the rocky cut-off of Rathmullan Point, where there are redshank shrilling, and turnstone shuffling and tossing among the wracks. But I’m drawn back to the long view. There they are again, the sanderlings, dancing to the waves, fleeing each swash to chase its backwash. Their switching looks like perfect slapstick, and I am smiling, but the apparent vacillation ensures that any transient disturbance of sand is assiduously probed for freshly exposed invertebrates. As adaptation to this cursorial (running) feeding strategy, sanderling feet are tridactyl, having lost even the vestigial hallux (hind toe) common to other small waders.

I stop smiling. There is a grandeur to their obsessive tide-combing. Like the sandpiper of Elizabeth Bishop’s eponymous poem, this species alternates between scales “minute and vast”. From its Arctic breeding grounds, it disperses to winter on beaches like this one the length and breadth of the planet. And something has shifted in my perspective because, watching these, my short time has turned into all the time in the world.

o Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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