Most shorebirds nest in the Arctic or subarctic, so for bird photographers in the lower 48, it’s the late summer—when birds begin to wing their way back south from fertile breeding grounds in the north—that’s most exciting and productive. The best sites are those where photographers can easily access the habitat, as is the case with the seven featured below.
Shorebird flocks can often be approached easily, if you maintain a low profile. When you spot a group of shorebirds, approach slowly in a crouched position or by crawling on your knees. This will enable you to get close without disturbing their foraging activity. Lying on your stomach and shooting with your tripod set very low will give your photographs a natural, eye-line perspective. Wear waterproof clothing or waders so that you can lie on wet sand or mudflats for long periods while you inch towards the birds. Some photographers also wear kneepads to reduce strain.
The ideal timing for photography can vary by the day or even hour depending on the tides in coastal areas or the persistence of wet areas at inland sites. Check online tide charts for coastal areas and estuaries to determine the best time to visit.
Montezuma Wetlands Complex, New York
One of the most important wetland habitats in the Northeast, Montezuma hosts a diverse array of shorebirds during migration, including a few specialties such as Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Hudsonian Godwit. You can access the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge via a wildlife drive that offers excellent photo opportunities from the car; a few pull-offs and trails allow you to get closer to impoundments managed specifically for foraging habitat. North of the refuge, the Montezuma Audubon Center has excellent marsh habitat for shorebirds along the trails, and the nearby “Mucklands” agricultural fields often have wet hollows that attract species like Black-bellied and American Golden-Plover. Migration here begins in July, but the greatest diversity and numbers are seen in August.
Plymouth and Duxbury Beaches, Massachusetts
When the tide is out, mixed flocks of plovers, dowitchers, and sandpipers forage along the seaweed wrack lines and open mudflats of the barrier beaches in Plymouth and Duxbury Bays, a Massachusetts Important Bird Area. As summer turns to fall hundreds of Dunlin gather in the area to overwinter. You can drive along the Plymouth Beach sand roads with an all-wheel-drive vehicle (stay on the designated paths) or park in the lot at Duxbury and approach shorebird habitat on foot. Visits here are good throughout the late summer but can be best after Labor day when beach visitors are fewer and many more birds can be seen.
Bolivar Flats and Horseshoe Marsh, Texas
Managed by the Houston Audubon Society, Bolivar Flats and adjacent Horseshoe Marsh attract impressive numbers of wintering shorebirds, including American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, and Long-billed Curlew, which in the fall mix with long-distance migrants like Red Knot and Baird’s Sandpiper. The area also hosts a very rich population of resident breeding Wilson’s Plover, as well as both Piping and Snowy Plover, and many individuals remain in the area for the winter. Late July and August are good times to visit but the entire fall can be productive with numbers of wintering shorebirds building as the seasons turn.
Cheyenne Bottoms Migratory Bird Preserve and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Kansas
Shorebirds migrating through the center of the continent stop by Cheyenne Bottoms and nearby Quivira, which form a massive wetlands complex—the largest in the American interior. Visitors include great numbers of Stilt Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, and Wilson's Phalarope, as well as a diversity of plovers and sandpipers. Both sites can be reached via wildlife drives that allow for close viewing of foraging shorebirds, dikes designed for pedestrian access, and areas that bring photographers to the edge of great habitat with eye-level views. Visit in early August for large concentrations of shorebirds, including great numbers of Stilt Sandpiper.
Grays Harbor Estuary, Washington
Situated along the mouth of the Chehalis River, Grays Harbor provides key stopover habitat for several species of Arctic breeders, especially the Western Sandpiper. Marbled Godwit and Semipalmated Plover frequent the site too. Tidal flats within Gray’s Harbor National Wildlife Refuge host large flocks of foragers at low tide and roosting birds when the tide is higher. A boardwalk trail provides access, but a close approach is typically easier at nearby spots along the river, such as Bottle Beach State Park and Johns River Wildlife Area. Plan your visit for late July and August to photograph the best concentrations of shorebirds.
Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, New Jersey
The pair of long jetties stretching into Barnegat Inlet in New Jersey attracts a small but interesting assemblage of species. In the fall, several dozen Purple Sandpiper arrive for the season and forage together with large groups of Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstone, and Sanderling. The broad south jetty provides excellent opportunities to view birds foraging on algae-covered rocks and has plenty of flat space to set up your tripod. Many photographers also spend time shooting from the lower rocks along the sloped edges of the jetty for better low-angle shots. If you decide to shoot from the edges, watch your footing and look out for unpredictable waves and wakes from passing boats. Purple Sandpipers are late migrants so the best time to visit is from late fall through the winter.
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah
Located along the edge of the Great Salt Lake, Bear River is an enormously important staging area for the migration of Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, and Wilson’s Phalarope (an astounding 30 percent of the world’s population of this species). Long-billed Curlews can number in the thousands as well. A wildlife drive takes you past impoundments of varying water depth with views of masses of foraging shorebirds; photography from the edge of the refuge roads will allow wide views to document the enormous aggregations of birds. Arrive in early August for the highest numbers of avocets and phalaropes.
Benjamin Clock is a nature photographer and videographer with a passion for using beautiful imagery to aid in conservation of habitat and biodiversity.