Shorebirds often travel thousands of miles

By Keith Sutton Published March 19, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.
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Keith Sutton

The killdeer lives in Arkansas year-round, nests here and is common here, making it the state’s most familiar shorebird.

As an avid birdwatcher, I love spring. It’s during this season that many of our feathered friends drop in for a visit before heading north to their breeding grounds. Many species of warblers, vireos, thrushes, sparrows and other groups make appearances of a few days to a few weeks as they migrate from their winter homes south of us to nesting areas in more northern states and provinces.

I enjoy watching all birds, but among my favorite groups are the shorebirds. More than 210 species live worldwide. But here in The Natural State, we regularly see just 34. These include plovers (including the killdeer), black-necked stilt, American avocet, yellowlegs, sandpipers, willet, godwits, ruddy turnstone, red knot, sanderling, dunlin, dowitchers, common snipe, American woodcock and phalaropes.

Most shorebirds have long legs and bills — adaptations for wading and feeding in shallow flooded fields, along ocean beaches, in marshy meadows or along the shores of inland waters. Their plumage is seldom brightly colored like many songbirds, but shorebirds are beautiful and graceful creatures. The many variations of plumage, calls and behavior make some difficult to identify, but the beginning birdwatcher will quickly learn Arkansas regulars such as the spotted sandpiper, woodcock, killdeer, snipe and yellowlegs.

On my last spring visit to the 15,000-acre Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge in White County, several fields were covered with sheets of shallow water. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel had flooded these areas to provide habitat for shorebirds, and I had the opportunity to observe lots of these interesting birds as they went about their business.

Compact groups of pectoral sandpipers were scurrying along the water’s edge, pecking and probing as they walked. Near a corner of one pool, several dozen dowitchers bobbed their heads in typical sewing-machine fashion, jabbing the bottom with their long, flexible bills, looking for aquatic worms and snails. Greater and lesser yellowlegs fed near them, rushing from one spot to another picking insects off the water. Other shorebirds — killdeer, semipalmated sandpipers, Wilson’s snipe, a pair of ruddy turnstones and a seldom-seen Wilson’s phalarope — were feeding on little invertebrates picked from the water or preening and resting.

A sight like this is not unusual in other parts of Arkansas as well. You may not be familiar with some of these birds, but they are here, nevertheless. A few, like the killdeer, live here year-round, but most are only visitors.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of shorebirds is their amazing migration odyssey. They’re among the world’s greatest migrants, with some species traveling from the high Arctic to the southern limits of South America and back again, all in a single year. That’s a greater distance than many of us travel in our cars during the same period of time.

The pectoral sandpipers seen on wet, east-Arkansas meadows in April left their wintering grounds in southern South America in late February. By June, the females are incubating eggs on the Arctic tundra. In August, the recently hatched juveniles will make their first trip through Arkansas as they accompany their parents back to South America.

Another extraordinary migrant is the white-rumped sandpiper, a fairly common spring migrant in parts of Arkansas. This small bird migrates from the North American Arctic to Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands in South America, a round trip of about 16,000 to 18,000 miles each year.

The most amazing Arkansas shorebird migration is that of the American golden-plover. After nesting in the tundras of Alaska and northern Canada, these birds assemble in Labrador, then fly over 2,400 miles of ocean to the Brazilian coast, then onward through Brazil and Uruguay to spend the winter on the Argentine pampas. On their return north in spring, they travel a different course, over Central and South America to the Gulf of Mexico, then up the Mississippi Valley through Arkansas to their tundra breeding grounds, some 8,000 miles north of their wintering quarters. These fascinating migrants see more of the world in a single year than most people see in a lifetime.

In Arkansas, shorebirds are most common in spring and fall as they stop over during migration. April and May are the best months for observing spring migrants; fall migrants pass through from July through December.

Some shorebirds are regularly seen here during fall migration but seldom in spring. Avocets, willets, sanderlings and buff-breasted sandpipers are good examples. Others, like the golden-plover, are more likely to be seen during spring migration.

Some species, such as pectoral and least sandpipers, migrate in flocks that may include hundreds or thousands of birds. For example, birders once reported a flock containing more than 8,000 pectoral sandpipers near Lonoke. Other species are less sociable, migrating alone or in flocks of two to 50 birds. Most sightings of solitary sandpipers, for instance, involve single birds.

The Bald Knob NWR, located just south of its namesake city, is among the best places to view shorebirds in Arkansas. To reach the refuge’s flooded fields, from Arkansas 367 in Bald Knob, take Hickory Street south. This street turns into Coal Chute Road at the city limit. Continue on Coal Chute Road approximately 4 miles, and you’ll see the refuge headquarters on the left, where you can pick up a bird checklist. Just a mile or so down the road are flooded fields on the right and left. Pull safely onto the roadside, and using binoculars or a spotted scope, you should be able to observe a variety of shorebirds. Be sure to bring a good field guide to birds to help you identify what you see.

Some of Arkansas’ other NWRs also serve up excellent shorebird watching. One of the best is Holla Bend southeast of Russellville, where common migrants include Wilson’s snipe, spotted sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers and Wilson’s phalaropes. The refuge bird guide lists 23 species of shorebirds, including hard-to-find species such as the ruddy turnstone, black-bellied plover and the whimbrel, a rare Arkansas visitor.

Two other good places to see shorebirds are the Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery near Lonoke and the Andrew Hulsey State Fish Hatchery on the shore of Lake Hamilton in Garland County. When hatchery fish ponds are drawn down or drained, the exposed mudflats attract huge numbers of these interesting birds. It’s not unusual to see six to 10 species during a spring or fall visit.

Information on all these areas and other shorebird-watching hot spots are included in the Game & Fish Commission’s Arkansas Watchable Wildlife Guide, which can be downloaded free at Opportunities for birdwatchers to observe and enjoy Arkansas’ beautiful shorebirds are almost boundless, yet the numbers of many species are plummeting. Reclamation of coastal wetlands, wetlands drainage and other types of disturbance have taken an enormous toll. One Arkansas shorebird, the piping plover, has been listed as an endangered species.

Much more work is urgently needed to document shorebird numbers, distribution and population ecology to fully understand the implications of all the pressures we’re placing on them. Let’s hope we succeed in these efforts so we can continue enjoying these interesting gypsies of the shore and their incredible migration odysseys.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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