The Science of Sustainability

Return of the Shorebirds

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The wheel of the seasons turns again and the shorebirds have returned to our Bay!  From the small “peeps” like sandpipers and sanderlings to the larger willets, long-billed curlews and marbled godwits, our shorelines are teeming with bird life.  It was a quiet summer while they were away.  Now, seemingly overnight, they’ve flown in from the far north filling the marshes, rocks and mudflats with their near constant chattering and weeping cries.  Their full-grown young have returned with them, or separately depending on the species, in a miracle of life that occurs year after year.  San Francisco Bay is a vital migration hot spot to shorebirds in the entire Western hemisphere of our globe.

Let's look at an example of how one species uses the "Pacific Flyway".  At the beginning of summer, mated pairs of marbled godwits hatched their eggs on Arctic tundra or northern marshes and prairie potholes. Their chicks fattened and grew on insects (for the most part) from the 24-hour “Buffet of the Midnight Sun.”  In the span of a few weeks, the chicks matured, changing from long-legged fluff balls to juveniles with sleek feathers and long legs and beaks.

The females left about a month after the young hatched, while the males stayed on until the young are able to fly.  Winging away south, they traveled with the others of their kind.  There is a study currently underway to track marbled godwits between their breeding grounds and wintering habitat coordinated by the United States Geological Survey.

Beyond their significance and conservation efforts, shorebirds are amazingly beautiful and some of their flights are works of art.  Enjoy the synchronized flight of shorebirds in this video segment from the Nature Conservancy, "Dance of the Shorebirds."

Here in the Bay Area, we’re fortunate to host shorebird migrants along the Pacific Flyway through the winter. There are ongoing studies coordinated through the Point Reyes Bird Observatory to determine best management practices to maintain and monitor our wintering shorebird populations. Take a little time to get out this fall and appreciate the amazing bay we share.  Visit a shoreline accessible along the San Francisco Bay Trail on your own or join one of the many guided walks to learn more about the wildlife and wild places near your home. In the East Bay, you can join bird-watching trips with the East Bay Regional Park naturalists.  Careful observers can help by reporting any banded shorebirds they see to the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network. You can also get more involved by volunteering to be a Citizen Scientist with the Pacific Flyway Shorebird Study and learn to count shorebirds.

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Category: Biology, Blog

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Sharol Nelson-Embry

About the Author ()

Sharol Nelson-Embry is the Supervising Naturalist at the Crab Cove Visitor Center & Aquarium on San Francisco Bay in Alameda. Crab Cove is part of the East Bay Regional Park District, one of the largest and oldest regional park agencies in the nation. She graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a degree in Natural Resources Management and an epiphany that connecting kids with nature was her destiny. She's been rooted in the Bay Area since 1991 after working at nature centers and outdoor science schools around our fair state. She loves the great variety of habitats stretching from the Bay shoreline to the redwoods, lakes, and hills. Sharol enjoys connecting people to nature with articles in local newspapers and online forums. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Calw

    This has been a great year for migration overall. lots of rarities in our parks and on the waters. And now that we are in our 'Bay Area Summer' of October, it is a great time to get out and see them. Shore birds are great to watch chase the waves – and there are so many species out there they are easy to find and learn about.