Replicating a Census from the Past to Protect Shorebirds of the Future

Thirty years later surveying methods haven’t changed, but have the shorebirds we’re counting?
Long-billed Dowitchers. Photo: Carter Kremer/Audubon Photography Awards

Max Malmquist stares into the southern edge of Great Salt Lake, his dad at his side, eyes drawn in the same direction. That’s when they spot it: a Snowy Plover. Small and as sandy in color as the dry lakebed beneath it, the bird is difficult to see, but they’ve spotted it, nonetheless.

Max’s dad, Mike, draws on a sheet of paper—a single mark for the single bird.

It’s August at Great Salt Lake which means persistent bugs, rolling desert heat, and most importantly, migrating shorebirds. Max and his dad have been out since the early morning hours, early enough to catch the sunrise and the setting of a full moon.

This, however, is what they’re here for: the count.

Another hundred or so volunteers spread across the 1700 square miles of Great Salt Lake and its associated wetlands, walking the shoreline while keeping track of every shorebird, not just Snowy Plovers. Along with them, numerous biologists from the Utah Division of Natural Resources and other state and federal agencies traverse the shoreline on ATVs, boats, and even by plane. Beyond Great Salt Lake, shorebird surveys are also happening at Salton Sea in California, Lake Abert in Oregon, the Lahontan Wetlands in Nevada, and more than 200 other sites throughout the Great Basin.   

Thirty years prior, a nearly identical scene was playing out.

. . .

The more information we have about the movements of shorebirds and their numbers, the better equipped we are to manage the critical ecosystems they depend on and protect their populations for generations to come. When it comes to shorebirds though, acquiring such a level of robust information is not an easy task.

Many shorebirds will utilize the entire hemisphere every year. In the winter they’re spread across the tremendously vast landscapes of North, Central and South America, and throughout the breeding season, they’re dispersed across the Arctic and other extremely remote locations. It’s nearly impossible to get a comprehensive picture of shorebird populations during these times, leaving birders and biologists one opportunity—migration.

“Migration provides us with this unique situation where significant portions of shorebirds are funneling through a more defined landscape, providing us with the opportunity to really get an idea of how they’re doing,” Max, Engagement Manager for Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program and lead coordinator of the Intermountain West Shorebird Surveys, explained.

The catch? Peak migration periods are short, lasting only one to two weeks—meaning it takes a herculean effort to count shorebirds across 200+ sites in the Intermountain West in such a brief window of time. And this is as true today as it was 30 years ago, during the last surveys of this scale.

Back in the 1980s, Point Reyes Bird Observatory, known today as Point Blue Conservation Science, was conducting the Pacific Flyway Project, looking at overwintering populations of shorebirds along the coast. Through those surveys, biologists were able to identify a critical gap in the data: inland habitats throughout the Intermountain West.

Building off the momentum of their Pacific Shorebird Surveys, Senior Scientist, David Shuford and his team at Point Reyes, undertook the massive effort of conducting the first comprehensive inland shorebird surveys looking at inland wetland sites across the Great Basin.

Using the expertise of the state and federal biologists who aided in this effort, 162 sites within the Great Basin were identified as potentially important to shorebirds.

Between 1989-1995, volunteers spent periods of fall and spring migration on the ground across those 162 sites counting shorebirds to establish the relative importance—38 of the sites supported more than 1000 shorebirds each year.

Max had the pleasure of meeting David Shuford in 2023 at  the Mono Lake Bird Chautauqua. He asked David how he was able to organize such an expansive effort, to which David laughed and only said, “A lot of phone calls.”

Yet the phone calls paid off. At the end of those five years, for the first time ever, the community had a profound understanding of shorebirds—how many there are, where they go, and the places they depend on throughout the Great Basin. The results of that historic effort culminated in the peer-reviewed article in Western Birds Journal, Patterns of Distribution and Abundance of Migratory Shorebirds in the Intermountain West of the United States

Since its publication, the data from this historic study has informed years of work and decision-making for conservationists, biologists, state agencies, non-profit organizations and more. To this day the information is still widely referenced, despite drastic environmental changes. In the last 30 years, between climate change, drought, and increased water diversions, many of the wetlands and shorebird habitats originally surveyed have undergone significant transformation or completely disappeared.

“Shorebirds are a group of species that are of greatest conservation concern because they have seen declines based on all of those factors,” Max said. “That was what led to these historic surveys—the need to understand how shorebirds’ populations are doing, and also what wetlands habitats they rely on.”

And the need today is even greater as we’ve lost 3 billion birds across North America since 1970.

. . .

Understanding how important Shuford’s original data collection proved to be, and the 30-year data gap since its publication, Stan Senner, former Vice President of Bird Conservation with the National Audubon Society and Brad Andres, from the Division of Bird Habitat Conservation at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, set in motion the rejuvenation of those surveys through the Pacific Flyway Council, resulting in another five-year surveying effort: the Intermountain West Shorebird Surveys.

August 9, 2022, marked the effort’s pilot surveys as over 200 participants across eight western states surveyed for shorebirds at 88 sites from the original study.  In 2023, the project expanded to over 300 participants, and included the original 162 sites, plus additional sites newly identified by biologists as important to shorebirds. These additions have expanded the scope of the project to include the easternmost portion of the Pacific Flyway in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Montana.

It’s no easier today to survey these sites than it was 30 years ago.

“We’ve moved from phone calls to emails, but it still takes a considerable amount of effort and organization to mobilize such a large number of volunteers and biologists so we can make these surveys happen,” said Max.  

While the coordination effort might look slightly different, the surveying work itself has remained the same: dedicated volunteers on the ground, spotting scopes and binoculars in hand, counting shorebirds at their survey site, on foot, in boats, or scouting by planes at some locations, for hours during peak migration days.

One of the main goals of procuring this new data is to take a retrospective look to see how populations of shorebirds and their distribution across these wetlands have changed over the last three decades. In addition, this effort seeks to understand how the wetlands themselves have changed. Everyone participating in the efforts today understands how important the work is they’re doing.

“If we can identify specific species and sites that are struggling, wetland managers will have the information they need to inform their management of the land and prioritize sustaining food, habitat, and resources for those specific species of birds,” Max explained.

There have been three seasons of surveys thus far including the pilot surveys in Fall 2022, and another four seasons scheduled. Through the surveys to date, we’ve discovered that many of the sites identified as important in the past continue to be just as important today, but others have been severely degraded. And when it comes to birds, the retrospective comparisons of the count are already proving significant.


Regionwide Comparisons:

Below are some of the preliminary results looking at medians, ranges and total raw counts compared to the original study results from David Shuford and Point Reyes (Point Blue):

Fall Migrations 1989-1995 (Shuford et al, original study) | 670,953 (median) *162 sites
Fall Migration 2022 | 366,659 (total raw count) *88 sites
Fall Migration 2023 | 727,578 (total raw count) *211 sites

The numbers prove even more interesting when you break it down by species in location. Consider the American Avocet at Great Salt Lake:

Fall 1989-1995 Median & Ranges (Shuford et al, original study): 220,272 (25,785-252,358)
Fall 2022 & Fall 2023: (25,399 & 51,362)

Or Phalaropes at Great Salt Lake:

Fall 1989-1995 Median & Ranges (Shuford et al, original study): 65,579 (620-111,277)
Fall 2022 & Fall 2023 Ranges: (165,078-203,255) 

Of course, anyone analyzing these preliminary results must consider a few key things:  preliminary results do not account for differences in the total area surveyed and the sites vary in size greatly, shorebird counts during migration can vary day to day, and the outlier weather experienced during the first three surveys.

The Fall 2022 Surveys were taken in the thick of the West’s megadrought with key sites such as Great Salt Lake at historic lows, while the Spring 2023 Surveys saw record-breaking snowpack and spring runoff across the West.

“The first three seasons of this program were opposite ends of the spectrum—the extremes,” Max said, highlighting that the reason these programs run four to five years is to help ensure we capture data from more typical seasons.

“When we started this project in August 2022, Eastern Nevada’s historic sites were completely dry and looked like they would never have water again. Then, after last year’s weather cycles, the same sites suddenly had shorebirds and provided habitat again.” he said. Water levels were so high at some sites that Spring 2023 surveys couldn’t even be conducted.

“We will take that into account when we do our analysis.”

While there are still a few years before the survey will finish—and Audubon, Point Blue and others will publish another peer-reviewed manuscript with the 30-year retrospective look—sharing preliminary results as they become available has become a top priority.  

“Considering how quickly conditions are changing at Great Salt Lake and other sites, there has already been a large request and need to get data sooner. After each year or season of surveys, we’re working to have quicker output of seasonal data and reports so that the right people can use this information to support shorebirds.” Max said.

Janice Gardner, Executive Director and Conservation Ecologist with Sageland Collaborative, in partnership with Max and National Audubon Society’s Saline Lakes Program, has organized and delivered seasonal reports and updates on the findings at Great Salt Lake. Point Blue’s lead on the project, Blake Barbaree, has also been sharing results on a regional scale as they become available. In an ongoing and complimentary project, Point Blue will soon publish the first ever population trends for the Pacific Flyway using data collected since 2012 from a winter monitoring program in all 13 countries of the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The results from these reports (and similar ones) are gaining attention.

For instance, Great Salt Lake and Salton Sea were the two most important sites in the region for shorebirds thirty years ago. These two sites remain most important—on a single day during Fall 2023 migration, surveyors counted 250,000 shorebirds at Salton Sea. That’s more than twice the previous maximum of 105,000 counted in Shuford’s original surveys.

Those familiar with the region know that this shorebird increase isn’t the only significant change happening at the Salton Sea. Rapidly declining water levels have resulted in shallower water habitats and increased salinity, ideal for shorebird populations while devastating for other bird species, and conditions at Salton Sea are continuing to change at an alarming rate. Read more about the preliminary results at Salton Sea →

At the core of every set of results, one thing is clear: over millennia, shorebirds have evolved to take advantage of little niches and incredible wetland habitats across the Intermountain West. But they can only evolve so quickly, especially in the face of rapid climactic changes. Meaning time is of the essence when it comes to completing these surveys, publishing their findings, and letting their results inform our work to ensure these species will have the opportunity to continue migrating through wetland habitats.

“Whether we mean to or not, we’re losing a lot of these habitats and we’re having an impact on these shorebirds and their populations. Taking part in these surveys is a unique opportunity to be involved in the conservation of these birds and doing everything we can to ensure that they can exist in the future.” Max said, reflecting that his own time surveying has helped to inform his love for this project. 

We know from research that protecting and maintaining healthy wetlands also protects communities, public health, recreational opportunities, ecological functions and even the economic interests of surrounding communities. It starts with the birds, but the positive feedback loop of conservation and habitat protection extends much further.

The Spring 2024 surveys will run from April 24-30. To sign up as a volunteer, contact Max Malmquist or Blake Barbaree for upcoming survey opportunities and other ways to be get involved: and