By Susan Heath
Shorebirds encompass a large array of birds including sandpipers, plovers, curlews, godwits, dowitchers, avocets, and stilts. They have longish legs and probing bills for foraging along the shore though there are several species that live inland. One familiar inland shorebird is the Killdeer (shown below) which can be found in short grass or bare fields where they forage on insects. Killdeer breed all over the United States and Canada but most shorebirds nest in the arctic, where they must complete their reproductive process during the short but sweet polar summer.
Arctic nesting shorebirds arrive on the tundra in May and early June and being the nesting process immediately. Just 6 to 8 weeks later in late July, the adults are already prepping to return south for the winter. These birds have some of the longest migratory routes in the world. For example, Bar-tailed Godwits migrate in a single flight from the Arctic to New Zealand, a non-stop flight of over 7000 miles! Adult shorebirds depart first, leaving the young to fatten up for a few weeks before they too strike out, guided only by inborn maps and compasses.
There are roughly 35 species of shorebirds that pass through our area on their twice annual migrations, but beach-goers are most familiar with the several types that specialize on the outer Gulf beaches. These are the Sanderling, a small whitish and gray sandpiper which follows a wave out probing for prey in the wet sand then runs back before being swamped by the next wave. A slightly larger and more boldly marked shorebird in patterns of rusty red, black, and white, the Ruddy Turnstone, is frequently found with the Sanderlings. As the name suggests, the turnstone inserts its relatively short, wedge-shaped bill under a shell or rock and flips it over to get at hidden marine creatures that have sought shelter underneath. They also are quick to pounce on the abundant small animals that are found in the clumps of Sargassum, the yellowish-brown seaweed that washes ashore abundantly this time of year.
Both the Sanderling and the Turnstone nest in the arctic but year-old birds are not yet ready to breed and so do not make the long journey back to their birthplace. Instead they remain on our shores through the summer. Among the travelers soon to return to our beaches are two species considered officially Endangered and Threatened (a slight less dire status) respectively, the Piping and Snowy Plovers.
A larger shorebird, the Willet, brown with a longish straight bill, is also found along our beaches year round, but there is a little mystery to this. During the breeding season we have eastern Willets who breed all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, but during the winter, we have western Willets who breed in the northern Great Basin and north into Western Canada.
So while you are enjoying our beaches during the remaining summer, watch the beach birds going about their business and think about that long journey they may have just undertaken during “fall” migration.