For the Birds Radio Program: Shorebirds

Original Air Date: July 24, 2003

Laura and her friend Janet had a rewarding time looking at shorebirds. (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


In mid-July, right at the height of summer, one would think birds would take it easy, enjoying the seasonal riches and sitting tight in the catbird’s seat. But already, barely days after completing all their breeding responsibilities, some birds have started migrating, and some have even already traveled over a thousand miles from their breeding grounds. Many shorebirds nest on the tundra, where birds must fiercely compete for mid-summer’s abundance, and shrikes, jaegers, falcons, hawks, and other predators patrol hungrily, eager to fill not only their own stomachs but their hungry babies.’ The longer they remain in that fiercely beautiful but inhospitable world, the lower their chances of survival, so they cut out as soon as they possibly can. And so right now as we approach the final week of July, migrating shorebirds are already gathering on mudflats and marshes.

I went out with my birding buddy Janet this week to see what shorebirds we could drum up at Erie Pier in Duluth. Janet’s been going there regularly, and has seen quite a few shorebirds in the past few weeks. The day we picked there were fewer birds than Janet has seen, but there was still a good variety. Of course Killdeers were everywhere, conspicuous not only by their boldly-marked plumage but also by how noisy they were, apparently warning the other shorebirds about our every move. One Lesser Yellowlegs spent some time a few feet from a Killdeer, not only giving us pleasing looks but also providing an accurate size comparison if we’d any doubts about whether it was a Greater Yellowlegs. We also saw about a dozen peeps—those tiniest of all shorebirds, the size of sparrows. Most of them were dark with yellow legs, making them Least Sandpipers, but two or three Semipalmated Sandpipers came in close enough for us to see their slightly larger size, black legs, and paler, gray plumage. A full size up from them was the Pectoral Sandpiper who fed in the mucky water, its beak going up and down like a sewing machine needle. Shorebirds are confusing to most birders, and this one was apparently trying to trick us, using a feeding technique more commonly seen in dowitchers. Janet had seen a dowitcher last time she was there, but this time it was nowhere to be seen.

We found a group of Spotted Sandpipers in one area. They, too, were apparently trying to trick inexperienced birders, having lost all their spots. This time of year, Spotted Sandpipers simply do not live up to their name, but a little smudge on their side at the bend of the wing, along with their ever-present habit of bobbing their tail, made them easy for us to recognize. I do think their nickname, the teetertail, is more appropriate and helpful than their real name, though.

The last shorebird we found was a Common Snipe, feeding near where Janet had seen one recently. This one fed at the edge of the water for a while, then took a little snooze. With its improbably long beak, we could see why it rested its weary head, and that heavy beak, on its back.

Every time we go out to a good wetland this time of year, the shorebird composition will be a bit different from the time before, as some of these birds move on and others move in to take their place. This time we watched several Great Blue Herons and Common Terns, saw a kingbird chase off a Merlin, and found a beautiful white-tailed deer buck, the velvet-covered new antlers already impressive. Sometimes when I go there, a Peregrine Falcon flies in and swoops in to chase one of the shorebirds or ducks. There’s always something to see as we find ourselves right smack in the middle of these restless birds’ long, arduous migration.