Beaks and Bills
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written more than 145 articles for Whatcom Watch.
by Joe Meche
Every spring, one of nature’s most spectacular events takes place as billions of birds around the world follow the biological imperative and travel to their respective breeding grounds to procreate — some traveling thousands of miles away from the warmer climes where they spent the winter. The number of birds on the move in springtime is always a conservative estimate, given that many birds migrate at night. However, sophisticated Doppler radar technology has enabled us to track many of these large movements that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Some of our most visible and reliable migrants are the shorebirds which are often associated with water and open spaces, making them easier to track. Along the Atlantic and Pacific Flyways, spring is heralded more by the migration of shorebirds than the traditional harbinger, the American robin. Hundreds of thousands of shorebirds of different species follow the same migratory paths. During migration, these birds often concentrate in one particular area, creating a spectacle that is a delight for birdwatchers of all levels of expertise and interest.
Many shorebirds are long-distance migrants, and some species fly directly from their wintering grounds to nesting habitats as far north as the Arctic Circle. Other species make regular stops along the way to rest and refuel for their long journeys. Most of these layovers are at estuaries and tidal flats where biologists and avid birdwatchers await. Depending on the tides, whenever shorebirds locate suitable sites for feeding, they land en masse and begin their distinctive probing in the soft mud or sand as soon as their feet hit the ground.
These distinctive birds, known collectively as sandpipers, belong to the family Scolopacidae, of which there are 43 species in North America. These birds range in size from the large long-billed curlew to the aptly-named least sandpiper. Throughout the range of sizes there is a variety of specialization among the different species. Some shorebirds have short bills and short legs while others sport long legs and long bills. If you observe flocks of different shorebirds, you’ll notice how well-suited each species is to its particular niche in the feeding scenario.
Shorebirds locate their prey by touch and smell as they forage in the wet habitats they prefer. They can be seen working along the tide line as the mud and sand attain the perfect consistency for probing. When they are actively feeding, a flock of dowitchers resembles the action of a sewing machine with their frenetic up-and-down motion as they probe for food.
One of the most dazzling sights in the bird world is a sizable flock of shorebirds, twisting and swirling in a tight formation while flying above the beach or tide flats. Their rhythm is highly synchronized and methodical. Observers of this phenomenon can only wonder why there aren’t numerous mid-air collisions. This seemingly choreographed flight also serves another purpose when flocks attempt to elude birds of prey like peregrine falcons. Their contrasting light-colored bellies and dark backs present a confusing target to a pursuing raptor. In addition, the evolutionary design of shorebirds has provided them with long, pointed wings and tapered bodies that provide for rapid flight and the ability to make quick, evasive turns.
As birds feed along the shoreline, the slightest disturbance can cause the entire flock to take flight and move as one. Some observers feel that the flock follows the movements of the lead bird, which is usually out front. Still others have noted that the lead bird can also be on the edge or even in the middle of the flock. This behavior has been observed and studied for many years and, as unsettling as this might be to the birds, it’s a delightful experience for birdwatchers.
When this spectacle occurs in the Northwest, it usually involves dunlin, the most numerous of the shorebird species that winter here. Records of dunlin sightings in Whatcom County over the years have been impressive and flocks of five to ten thousand individuals are not uncommon. While large numbers are not considered unusual, one observer reported an estimated 50,000 birds at Drayton Harbor in January of 1993.
On the breeding grounds, the majority of shorebird nests are simple scrapes in the grass or loose gravel where the female lays two to four eggs. The chicks are precocial, in that they are able to move about and forage within hours after hatching, and at least one parent remains with the chicks during their first few weeks. In a subfamily of shorebirds, phalarope chicks are capable of swimming an hour after hatching. Many researchers have speculated that the rearing of the chicks is left primarily to the male while the female feeds to regain the energy that was lost during the production and incubation of eggs.
There are numerous good locations to observe shorebirds in Whatcom County that are accessible to birdwatchers of all physical abilities. The extensive tidal flats at Birch Bay, Lummi Bay, and the delta of the Nooksack River host large numbers of birds during migration. Farther south, the rocky shoreline from Chuckanut Bay to Larrabee State Park annually hosts species such as black oystercatchers, surfbirds, and black turnstones.
The single best place in the county for shorebird aficionados is the Semiahmoo Bay/Drayton Harbor area which, coincidentally, is one of the premier sites in the Important Bird Areas of Washington state. This area is also the anchor for the Cascade Loop of the Great Washington State Birding Trail. This site offers the potential to spend the entire day observing not only shorebirds but also numerous waterfowl species as the tides ebb and flow.
The mud flats at Blaine’s Marine Park and the boat launch area offer the best opportunities to see three godwit species, whimbrels, and long-billed curlews. These largest members of the shorebird family are quite thrilling to encounter, especially after seeing all the smaller cousins. Another large member of the family, the black oystercatcher, has become a frequent sighting on the spit at Semiahmoo and along the breakwater at the Blaine harbor waterfront.
The overall popularity of shorebirds is celebrated with numerous festivals along their migration routes. The often reliable timing of migration enables organizers to time their celebrations accordingly. It’s possible for hard-core birdwatchers to follow the migration by checking the list of festivals as the birds move north along the coast. The largest celebration in Washington state is the annual Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival, which is held in late April or early May.
Shorebirds are one of the more fascinating and entertaining groups of birds. They are finely tuned and extremely well adapted to their environment. They come in a variety of sizes and are striking in their breeding plumage. While they can pose identification challenges in winter, you will enjoy the learning process. Nothing enlivens a quiet beach or tidal flat like an active flock of shorebirds with a peregrine falcon in hot pursuit.