Muddy Migrants: Shorebirds lead the way

Dunlin, Calidris alpina, Yukon Delta NWR, Alaska
Dunlin are one of the world’s most abundant shorebirds and are common migrants in the Great Lakes region.

Even though the autumnal equinox isn’t until September 22, fall migration is well underway. American Redstarts and Yellow-rumped Warblers were in the yard a week ago and the number of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visiting our flowers and feeders has dramatically increased recently. On days with northerly winds one could probably see the first few migrant raptors at the Lake Erie hawkwatch sites. What many nonbirders don’t realize is that “fall” migration is happening as early as late June, and it starts with shorebirds like sandpipers and plovers. Here in the Great Lakes region it’s sometimes hard to tell which migration these birds are on. Did this bird’s nest fail and it’s now on a leisurely trip to it’s wintering grounds, or is it still heading north to the high arctic where winter’s snow has finally melted? By the last few days of June the first southbound Least Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs are showing up where there’s suitable habitat. More on habitat later.

Why should you be interested in shorebirds? They’re beautiful and fascinating creatures and are among the world’s greatest long distance migrants. I was lucky to stumble upon Peter Matthiessen’s The Wind Birds when I was a high school student and have been hooked ever since. Many new birders leave shorebirds until later. Their often similar and subtle plumages along with distant scope views in the heat shimmer makes identifying them a challenge. This and their incredibly long migrations are what drew me to them.

Argentina bound: A tired juvenile American Golden Plover takes a break at Whitefish
Point after the first leg of a long journey.

Dunlin, Calidris alpina, and Purple Sandpipers, Calidris maritima, Barnegat Light, New Jersey
Dunlin and Purple Sandpipers execute a high speed precision aerobatic above the Atlantic surf.

The places they come from captured my imagination , and I marvel at how 1,000 or 100,000 birds can move though the air as if they’re one organism. Shorebirds are restless and a flock often launches into the air as one, swooshes around for a bit, and settles right back where they were. When a Merlin or Peregrine shows up over a bird-crowded mudflat, the ensuing air show is one of the most mesmerizing sights in nature. Check out this video.

Everyone knows this bird. Whether you’re at the beach in Michigan, Florida, Siberia or
Australia, chances are you’ve seen Sanderlings. They breed throughout the high arctic
and winter in temperate and tropical latitudes around the globe.

Thirty-one out of 49 North American species breed primarily in the arctic and subarctic. Hardy Purple Sandpipers winter as far north as Newfoundland and a few species spend the winter on the mid-Atlantic, Gulf and California coasts. However, a number of species make incredibly long migrations and nonstop flights that defy logic. Pectoral Sandpipers may cover up to 18,000 miles a year between Siberia and southern Argentina. Bar-tailed Godwits make an amazing nonstop flight from Alaska to New Zealand. One female fitted with a satellite transmitter flew from the Yukon Delta, AK to North Island, NZ in 8 days covering 7,200 miles!

The long wings of this male Bar-tailed Godwit carry it across vast distances.

Pectoral Sandpipers at a Saginaw Bay mudflat.

My friend Jeff Buecking scans a mudflat at Pointe Mouillee State Game Area.

Shorebirds are a finicky bunch. Some like to feed on sandy beaches or dry grassy areas. Others like soft mud where they can probe for invertebrates. Long-legged species can feed in 8 inches of water, and birds like avocets and phalaropes can swim well. Generally, mudflats host the greatest diversity. Where this habitat can be found is always changing due to fluctuating water levels. Great Lakes water levels have been at historic lows for a while now. That’s not a good thing, but it does mean good shorebird habitat at least temporarily.  This year’s rainy and cool summer has helped to slow down this alarming trend and means places that were good for shorebirds last year don’t have the mudflats that most of these species depend upon. Water depths in shallow Saginaw Bay and western Lake Erie can change drastically and quickly depending on wind direction and velocity. A strong west wind can create a “low tide” and uncover many acres of food-rich mud, but you cannot count on the wind. Where else to look? Our state and federally managed wildlife areas are often good places to check out. Freshwater wetlands management means periodic drawdowns and flooding in order to promote native plants and provide food for migrating waterfowl. When a marsh area is temporarily drained it creates very shallow water and mudflats where shorebirds can find the invertebrates that they feed on. Two very good places to see these birds in Michigan at this time of year are Pointe Mouillee State Game Area and Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge with the nod going to Shiawassee this summer. Birders are currently seeing good diversity there.

Check out these birding websites for the latest sightings:

ABA Birding News

Saginaw Bay Birding

Ontario Birding

More on shorebirds next time…

American Avocets are very active feeders and photographing them is a fun challenge.


~ by David Stimac on August 8, 2013.

4 Responses to “Muddy Migrants: Shorebirds lead the way”

  1. I haven’t been shorebirding in forever. Interestingly, the best shorebird habitat in Huron County occurred during the extreme high-water years!

    Thanks for letting me live vicariously, Dave.

    P.S. Off to the FL Keys hawk watch the first couple weeks in Oct– come visit!

  2. “Stunning Post” and most informative! Love all of the images and the Avocet is flat over the top!!!


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