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Globe Trotters of the Bird World

General Information

Some 214 species of shorebirds comb the beaches, mudflats, marshes, and plains of the world. These birds are truly the globe trotters of the world, with migratory flights that span continents, hemispheres and the vast oceans of the world with feats of timely precision that mankind can only dream of.

So what is a shore bird? And why are they among the most popular and interesting of birds? 

First, shorebirds are small to medium size waders characterized by slender, probing bills and longish legs. They include the sandpipers, plovers, jacanids, snipes, curlews, lapwings, godwits, ruffs, dowitchers, avocets, thick-knees, coursers and stilts. 

Second, they are some of the world’s most amazing migrants, making round trip journeys from the high arctic to southern South America, Australia, Africa and widely scattered islands of the Pacific, frequently to the same sites year after year.

Third, they frequent wetlands and marshes, habitats that are rapidly disappearing, so they are biological indicators of the state of the world’s health. Fourth, many species are poorly known. Field identification is tremendously challenging, and 
Fifth, each species demonstrates an exquisite example of resource partitioning, or ecological nichemanship. 

The species that appear below illustrate the range of size, color and preferred habitats of these birds.


The Purple Sandpiper summers in Arctic regions of Canada, Europe and Asia. Their winter range is restricted by their finicky preference for rocky coasts, thus remarkably illustrating the ecological concept of nichemanship. Population numbers have no doubt benefited by the building of rocky jetties along sandy beaches.

Purple Sandpipers
Figure 1 - Purple Sandpipers (Calidris maritima)


Purple Sandpipers feeding
Figure 2 - Purple Sandpipers feeding


These sure footed birds walk about on slippery, wave splashed rocks probing for crustaceans, mollusks, amphipods, insects, fly larvae, and algae. Along the Atlantic coast, these birds winter farther north than any other shorebird.

Notice how their dark plumage blends well with their rocky environment. Purple Sandpipers are rarely seen on sandy beaches unless rocky habitat is close by.


The Sanderling prefers open sandy beaches, and is a worldwide, cosmopolitan globe trotter. These birds breed in high Arctic regions, migrate south along the coasts and interior regions of continents to southern South America, the Mediterranean, Burma, China, South Africa, and Australia. 

Their white plumage stands out against the rocky environment compared to the Purple Sandpipers, but on the beach, they are perfectly adapted to blend in. 


Figure 3 - Sanderlings (Calidris alba)


Figure 4 - Sanderlings


The Sanderling, as if the opposite of the Purple Sandpiper, prefers to feed on the shifting sands at the water’s edge. The move incessantly along a beach, running to and fro along the water’s edge while deftly staying just ahead of the advance and retreat of the waves. 

They probe the beaches of the world for flies, insect larvae, small crustaceans, small crabs, shrimps, mollusks, marine worms, and for meiofauna, the many creatures that are especially adapted to live in the microspaces between the grains of sand. On the beach, their white color blends well with their preferred sandy environment. 


The Pacific Golden Plover breeds in the high Arctic on Siberian and Alaskan coasts. The Alaskan breeders, using precise navigation, make a direct flight from Alaska to Hawaii across 2,700 miles of open Pacific to return to the same winter territory each winter. It is one of the most abundant winter visitors to the Hawaiian Islands. 

It is commonly found on lawns, mudflats, and grassy slopes. Siberian breeders winter along the coasts of Australia, Asia, New Zealand and Islands of the West and Central Pacific.


Pacific Golden Plover
Figure 5 - Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva)


Black-necked (Hawaiian) Stilt
Figure 6 - Black-necked (Hawaiian) Stilt 


Stilts are easily identified by their slender body, thin pointed bill, black and white plumage and extremely long legs. They are found worldwide in tropical and subtropical wetlands, where they feed on fish, worms, aquatic insects and crabs. Those that breed in Eurasia and North America are migratory. 

The American Oystercatcher is one of eleven species of oystercatchers that occur worldwide. As a group, these birds are sedentary and strictly coastal, except for the Eurasian Oystercatcher, which is more migratory and breeds well inland in Eurasia.

American Oystercatcher
Figure 7 - American Oystercatcher


Loafing Oystercatchers
Figure 8 - Loafing Oystercatchers


The oystercatchers prefer to dine on oysters, clams, mussels, marine worms, sea urchins, crabs and other forms of marine life. The bill is laterally compressed and shaped like a double edged knife. It is used to pry shellfish and limpets from rocks. The chisel like tip of the bill is deftly inserted between the two shells of an oyster or bivalve to snip the abductor muscle that holds the valves closed. This is a skill that may take a young oystercatcher up to a year to learn from its parents, so parental care is well illustrated in the oystercatchers.


The Bristle-thighed Curlew, seen in this long telephoto view, breeds on the barren tundra of Alaska’s mountains. Late in the summer, they make an incredible oceanic journey to winter on Polynesian Islands extending from the Caroline Islands to Fiji, East Polynesia and east to Pitcairn Island. They often stop to rest and refresh in Hawaii, where this individual was photographed.

This migratory flight across thousands of miles of trackless Pacific requires precise navigational abilities. Failure to hit their island target would certainly prove fatal.


Bristle-thighed Curlew
Figure 9 - Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis)


Wandering Tattler
Figure 10 - Wandering Tattler (Heteroscelus incanus)


The Wandering Tattler is a solitary shorebird that breeds along mountain streams in Alaska. It also performs a remarkably precise oceanic migration that takes it to remote Pacific Islands, and as far away as the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Some individuals also winter along the west coast of Mexico and the southwestern coast of the US.

The Wilson’s Phalarope is the most terrestrial of the three species of Phalaropes that occur worldwide. The Wilson’s occurs only in the Americas. It breeds in shallow wetlands that occur in the prairies of North America, and winters in freshwater ponds in Argentina and other parts of South America. 

Studies show that migrating individuals of this species will stop at the same shallow ponds and flooded fields year after year, demonstrating the importance of conserving even the most menial of wetland areas. 


Wilson’s Phalarope
Figure 11 - Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor)


Ruddy Turnstones
Figure 12 - Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres)


The colorful Ruddy Turnstone, one of two species of turnstones, occurs on coastal areas around the world. It breeds along the high Arctic coasts of Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Europe and Greenland, and winters along the coasts of the southern USA, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, Indonesia and islands of the Pacific. The Black Turnstone occurs only along the west cost of North America.

These birds use their strong bill and neck to flip over rocks and seaweed to uncover small crustaceans and insects. They travel and feed in flocks up to several hundred individuals, and cross vast continental and oceanic areas when migrating.


The Northern Jacana is strictly a fresh water shorebird found in Central America and parts of the Caribbean where mats of floating vegetation occur. 

This species, and several other species of shorebirds, practice an unusual breeding behavior. The female engages in polyandry (have one to four male mates), and will lay a clutch of eggs for each male. The males then incubate the eggs by sitting on their wings with two eggs held between each wing and their breast. 


Northern Jacana
Figure 13 - Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa)


Northern Jacana
Figure 14 - Northern Jacana


These birds have a lovely wing pattern, and often display it by holding the wings aloft for a moment after landing.

These birds are also well adapted for life on floating vegetation. Notice the length of the toes on the young bird at the top of this picture. The long toes distribute the weight of the bird across a large area enabling the bird to walk on floating vegetation without falling through.


Northern Jacana Foot
Figure 15 - Northern Jacana Foot


Piping Plover
Figure 16 - Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)


The survival of many species of shorebirds is in doubt. One good example from North America is the Piping Plover. This bird nests on open, sandy beaches of the east coast, the Great Lakes, and inland lakeshores. This brings them into direct conflict with man’s summer vacation activities. Many nests fail because of disturbance and destruction. It is estimated that less than 20 breeding pairs remain in the Great Lakes area. 


Ecological Nichemanship

Shorebirds provide wonderful examples of ecological nichemanship. As you have noticed, the bills of different species of shorebirds are highly variable. Some are short and stout, some are long and straight, and some are extremely long, narrow and curved. These variations enable each species to exploit specific food sources unavailable to other birds.

Long, thin, curved bills allow a species to probe deep into mudflats to reach burrowing organisms such as marine worms. Straight, stout bills allow other species to exploit more difficult food items like crabs, clams and oysters. Short, stout bills are adapted to feed on organisms that occur in shallow sandy or muddy areas, to probe for more shallow organisms, or to flip over rocks and debris to find food.

There is a Spoon-billed Sandpiper that feeds by sweeping its spoon shaped bill from side to side in water to sweep up food items.

There is also a Wry-billed Plover, one of the few bird species with a bill curved to one side. This unique bill is perfectly designed to catch mayfly larvae and fish eggs that cling to the underside of stones in streams.


As of this writing (September 2001), the debate to drill or not to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is raging. At least 22 species of shorebirds breed in or near this refuge. Some species have very restricted breeding ranges. What will be the impact of drilling on the nesting success of these birds?

Nearly 60% of the wetlands that existed in the USA during presettlement times have disappeared. In some areas, more than 90% of original wetlands have been destroyed. This trend occurs worldwide as man continues to encroach into new areas. Those patches of wetlands that remain are fragmented and suffer from varying degrees of disturbance and pollution.

Development and disturbance along our beaches has a tremendous negative
impact on the nesting success of many species of shorebirds and other water birds.

All of this adds up to a tragic testimony of man’s ignorance and disregard for his environment and the creatures such as shorebirds and other wildlife that depend on them to breed, winter, and stop and rest on long migratory journeys.

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