A summer at the beach continues to be a favored American pastime – and one which is doable during the time of covid. But even with social distancing we are not alone on the beach! Of course, there are various species of gulls whose presence is unmistakable. But there are also lots of other birds who are nesting on and migrating through east and west coast American beaches. Many,
having already nested in the northern reaches of the tundra in Canada or Alaska, are on their way south, feeding on shorelines to keep their energy and body weight up for the many thousands of miles yet to fly.
Shorebirds come in varying shapes and sizes – all with their own particular niche to fill. Sandpipers are a common catch-all term for shorebirds, but there are many different species of sandpipers, plovers and other shorebirds – some small and brown, some shockingly elegant in color or beak shape. These are some of the toughest and longest distance fliers among bird species. Some like Red Knots – weighing in at less than 5 ounces – travel 19,000 miles roundtrip every year. And there are reports of Whimbrels, which are very large shorebirds, having been known to fly straight through the eye of a hurricane at high altitude.
Right now the shorebird species seen on North American beaches are changing as they finish nesting and migrate south. Here are a few birds you may find on your beach this time of year and which you can easily identify:
American Oystercatcher: These graphically designed black and white birds with the bright red-orange beak and eye-rings are easy to ID. They are large, loud and strongly marked, and there are no other birds like them on the beach. If you have these on your East Coast beaches, they will have had chicks earlier in the season and their young ones will be with them right now – easy to ID as they look nearly identical to their parents but have no eye-rings and their beaks may still have black on them . If you see any oystercatchers with bands, be sure to report them here at the American Oystercatcher Working Group, which keeps track of all banded Oystercatchers and tracks their movements. Want more detailed info on these birds? The working group has it all!
Piping Plovers – These tiny sand-colored shorebirds, with a haunting call, weighing in at 1.7 ounces are early nesters. If you are seeing them now, you are most likely seeing this year’s crop of young ones, completely on their own, making their first migration to overwinter in the Bahamas, Mexico or other southerly areas near the Gulf of Mexico. Their parents left them once the chicks fledged, and now small groups of juveniles are banding together to make their first journey south into uncharted territory as a small flock or entirely on their own. A near-threatened species, their continuing existence is fragile and dependent upon human monitoring and safe places to nest as they share the same beaches we do. Learn more about plovers from BirdNote.
Sanderlings– Possibly the most abundant bird found on beaches right now, Sanderlings are a species of Sandpiper. They have straight black beaks and black legs and follow the waves in and out along the shoreline, using a probing method which looks like a sewing machine needle to get food from the sand. Flocks of these brown and white smallish birds will gather in some places into the thousands in the fall on American beaches after breeding above the Arctic Circle. This bird is a keystone ID bird – if you can get this one right, the other species that look similar will become more clear. Check out specific ID info here at Cornell’s All About Birds.
Ruddy Turnstones – One of the most beautifully feathered shorebirds, this stocky sandpiper which is a little larger than a Sanderling, has chestnut and black wings and back and a white underside, and is reminiscent of a calico cat. Ruddy Turnstones have a thin beak, and breeding birds have an unusual set of black and white markings on their face and neck and bright orange legs. Birds in breeding plumage are easy to ID – non-breeders are brown and white and far less showy. This bird nests in the high tundra of North America and Eurasia and can be found on beaches on six continents. Find out more on BirdNote.