Return of the Shorebirds

Greater yellowlegs          photo: Joe Meche

by Joe Meche

Just like clockwork, and further to my last column, by late July the shorebirds that passed through on their northbound migration had begun heading south. The great thing about it is that birding activity in general will see a noticeable upswing from the dog days. The first I heard from a group that I belong to was by way of a photograph of a sizable flock of black-bellied plovers at Semiahmoo. Cindy was on a walk at Semiahmoo and returned with the news of a lone whimbrel on the inside of the spit. I smiled and knew that the seasonal swing was underway.

During the first week of August, I returned to my usual practice of driving along the shoreline to Semiahmoo instead of the more expeditious travel on the Interstate. This route coincides with the school year when I make the drive on Wednesdays to pick up my granddaughter after school in Blaine. The family joke is that I always leave early in the morning so I won’t be late to pick her up … at 3 o’clock! With another school year rapidly approaching, I thought this would be a good time to get back into the rhythm of Wednesdays.

As is often the case, my anticipation is not always rewarded with great sightings, but just being out in the familiar haunts is a reward in itself. I usually make my first connection with the shoreline at the south end of Birch Bay, State Park. This ideal habitat for shorebirds extends around the perimeter of Birch Bay offering lots of potential for a number of species, like greater and lesser yellowlegs, dunlin and western sandpipers. After a clear view of the bay, it’s up and over the hill on Harborview Road to the south end of Drayton Harbor. The tidal flats that extend from the south end of Drayton Harbor and surround the Semiahmoo Spit are a boon to shorebird fans.

So, what’s so special about shorebirds? The most obvious answer to that question is in the name. They generally frequent the open areas of shorelines throughout their respective ranges and these same areas are very appealing to most humans. Visibility and accessibility are additional factors that make this greater family of birds attractive to birdwatchers worldwide. Their often incomprehensible numbers also play a key role, and the swirling, synchronized patterns of several thousand shorebirds moving as one is difficult to put into words.

There are 62 species of shorebirds in North America, ranging in size from the long-billed curlew to the aptly named least sandpiper. Of these, as many as 35 species have been observed in Whatcom County. Aside from obvious field marks and size, suitable habitat choices are often keys in identification. Rocky shorelines, sandy beaches and tidal mudflats are the best locations to look for shorebirds. Most are highly migratory and we see some species only during spring and fall migration as they move between nesting and wintering grounds. Some species spend the winter in local habitats, much to the delight of birdwatchers.

One particular day at Semiahmoo last September epitomized the lure of shorebirds to their avid fans. The local listserve hinted that the annual southbound migration of black-bellied plovers was reaching its peak at almost 800 birds. There were also hints that other species were seen mixed in with the plovers. The number of watchers increased as soon as it was confirmed that the plovers were accompanied by a pair of marbled godwits, a bar-tailed godwit and a Hudsonian godwit. The latter two are considered very rare migrants, which added to the allure. If this wasn’t enough, there was also a willet, another rarity for the county. It made for a spectacular week of birding close to home.

While the larger species seem to garner the most attention, the smaller shorebirds are highly anticipated and appreciated, often by people who aren’t even birdwatchers yet. The genus Calidris includes the most common and recognizable members of the family known collectively as sandpipers, which is part of the names of most species in this genus. The most common species in this group is the dunlin, whose flocks have been known to exceed 10,000 individuals. Dunlin are the birds we most often see in their spectacular, awe-inspiring aerial displays as the birds perform synchronized flights that are geared toward evading the birds of prey, like peregrine falcons and merlins. This is a sight that lacks description and needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

A notable member of the shorebird family is one of the most widespread and recognizable birds in North America, the killdeer. Killdeer are the most numerous members of the family of plovers. They are seen in a variety of habitats, unlike most other plovers that are more frequently seen on shorelines. The black-bellied plovers provide excitement during migration twice a year, but killdeer are here year round. The other plover that we occasionally see in local habitats is the semipalmated plover. If you see a bird that looks like a miniature killdeer, it’s probably a semipalmated plover.

Another very popular member of the greater family of shorebirds is the inimitable black oystercatcher. They are unmistakable with their black bodies and bright orange bills. Their numbers have been increasing in Whatcom County over the past several years and I have personally monitored several nesting pairs on the Chuckanut shoreline. I’ve had the pleasure of keeping tabs on one pair in particular that has nested in the same spot on the same offshore rock for the past five years. The female of this pair was banded as a chick in the Canadian Gulf Islands in May of 2007.

Sanderlings are also common on local shorelines during the winter and easy to recognize, especially with their mostly white plumage. They are the stereotypical shorebirds that we often see in movies, racing back and forth along the beach just inches ahead of incoming surf. Sanderlings often share our cobble beaches with black turnstones. Black turnstones in turn share rocky headlands with a less common species, the surfbird. Field identification skills are often put to the test when encountering the two yellowleg species. When they’re side by side, however, it’s easy to tell a greater from a lesser.

Of all the families of birds, few have more appeal to a larger audience than shorebirds. They’re easy to find and very active in areas that are generally accessible to most people. The life stories of the individual species are remarkable. The miles they cover during migration twice a year and their unique nesting habits and habitats have been chronicled extensively. They have been celebrated by poets throughout the ages. A favorite author of mine, Peter Matthiessen, offered one of the finest quotes about shorebirds: “The restlessness of shorebirds, their kinship with the distance and swift seasons, the wistful signal of their voices down the long coastlines of the world make them, for me, the most affecting of wild creatures.”

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 over 170 columns for Whatcom Watch.