As we wind down to the last sweltering days of summer, the beach scene is starting to pick up again. But this time, a different sort of crowd is flooding the North American waterfront: shorebirds!
On a good migration day in late August or early September, you might encounter a dozen species (or even 20 at the best sites) of stilts, sandpipers, turnstones, tattlers, dunlin, dowitchers, plovers, phalaropes, and assorted others—collectively known as the Charadriiformes, a diverse order of about 350 species worldwide. The group is lovingly referred to as the shorebirds (though across the pond, birders prefer the term “waders”).
Spring migration for shorebirds is short and sweet, with adults blasting north to their Arctic breeding grounds between late March and early June. But the return trip to the tropics takes a more leisurely pace, spanning from late June through early December and peaking in August. On their way south, adult shorebirds make multiple stops and are joined by juveniles, offering ample variety and challenges for even the most attuned birders.
A few shorebirds, like avocets and oystercatchers, are relatively colorful and distinctive, but the majority are patterned in streaky shades of brown and gray. Some birders take perverse delight in picking apart the subtle field marks of, say, the Long-billed Dowitcher versus the Short-billed Dowitcher—though you don’t have to get that far into the nitty gritty to enjoy shorebirds. Start with an easier species (like a Killdeer) and study its structure. How long is the beak? Does it curve at all? How about the legs? Is the bird tall and slender, or squat and hunched? In the world of shorebirds, these are helpful hints.
Another good identification clue is habitat. Some types, like yellowlegs and snipe, tend to go for fresh water (the “shorebird” label is a misnomer in that sense), while others, such as Sanderlings and Short-billed Dowitchers, usually stick to brackish places. Check your local beaches, mudflats, flooded fields, sewage ponds, sod farms, and other wet spots. Any body of water with a shallow, exposed edge is likely to attract waders during fall migration.
In coastal areas, tides can be a key factor in timing your shorebird pursuits. It’s usually best to visit large mudflats or estuaries on a mid-level rising tide. At high tide, the mudflats tend to disappear and the birds go elsewhere to roost, while at low tide they spread out over huge distances. As the water rises, it pushes birds toward you for the best views. A spotting scope can be quite handy in such cases.
If you’re birding inland, you have to get creative. Irrigated farm fields make for perfect wading habitat, and shallow reservoirs can attract huge concentrations of sandpipers. One of my favorite shorebird spots is a hot spring that trickles onto an alkali salt pan . . . in the desert. (This oasis always seems to lure in something interesting.)
Also, prepare to be surprised: Because shorebirds migrate long distances, a few stray off course each year and end up in unexpected places. One of the special joys of shorebirding is the chance to spot a rarity. While sifting through flocks of common species, pay attention to any bird that doesn’t seem to blend in with the rest. One time, I saw a Spotted Redshank not far from home in Oregon when it should have been somewhere in Eurasia.
To help with identification, The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson is one of the best references on the subject. Otherwise, the illustrations in any major field guide, such as The Sibley Guide to Birds or the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, are enough to tease out tricky IDs. It’s also helpful to download a smartphone app and have all the information right in your pocket.
If you’re looking for extra motivation, World Shorebirds Day on September 6 is a good excuse to get out and list some species (counts are running from today to Monday). Learn more about the program and sign up for specific events right here.