2017-07-27 / Nature

Shorebirds are Already on the Move South

By Charles Avenengo

Five American Avocets on First Beach, represent the largest group of avocets observed in Rhode Island together. (Photo by Bob Weaver) Five American Avocets on First Beach, represent the largest group of avocets observed in Rhode Island together. (Photo by Bob Weaver) It seems like yesterday the birds were pushing north to their migration grounds. And while it might be sacrilegious to discuss the matter during the height of beach season, the truth is that the return southward for the autumnal migration has already begun.

The spring migration is a frantic affair, sort of like a shopping mall on a Friday payday. Everyone is in a rush to spend their money and the excitement is palpable. In comparison, the fall migration is a much more languid phase. It takes months for the birds to migrate south versus the few weeks of frenzied spring migration. It’s the work week versus the weekend.

On Aquidneck Island, the almost imperceptible fall migration process has begun. A few land species have already started their retreat and are currently hard-pressed to find. These include yellow warblers and orchard orioles, traditionally amongst the first species to complete their nesting duties and pack up shop for southern climes.

Male and female goldfinch. 
(Photo by Carmen Rugel) Male and female goldfinch. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) Beyond these “early birds” is another group on the move. These are shorebirds. Having flown here from their subarctic nesting grounds, shorebirds are commonly found along sandy or rocky shorelines, mudflats and shallow waters. Also called wading birds, there are at least 50 types of shorebird species in North America. This doesn’t include vagrants, which are birds that are blown off-course during high winds. Vagrants account for nearly another 50 species.

The shorebird’s presence here is nothing short of amazing. Except for a few species of local nesters like oystercatchers, piping plovers, killdeer, willets and spotted sandpipers, all the tiny “peeps” and other types we now see on the beaches have already traveled hundreds, if not a 1,000 miles from the subarctic tundra. Now that they are here, a shorebird’s job for the next few weeks is to fatten up in preparation for the next leg of their journey. Shorebirds only weigh a few ounces and during this fueling-up process they will gain a third of their body weight. For example, a familiar sanderling that has just arrived might currently weigh in at two ounces. A month from now, it might weigh three ounces.

(Photo by Carmen Rugel) (Photo by Carmen Rugel) Once it begins the migration leg southward, many will cross the ocean, some flying as far as South America. It is a perilous journey. The flight south expends constant energy, with the nonstop flapping of wings. En route, the bird’s caloric output amounts to a third of its body weight, which is about the same weight they put on while enjoying Aquidneck’s bounty. Often contending with contrary winds and nowhere to land, the bird’s difficulties account for crews on offshore vessels who often wake up to see surprise visitors on their decks or in the ship’s rigging. These are the exhausted migrants, all two or three ounces of them, catching a little break before moving on.

The champion shorebird long-distance migrant is the bar-tailed godwit, which annually each fall and spring undertakes an 11,000-kilometer, eight-day journey from Alaska to New Zealand, without once stopping to rest or eat. Although normally a Pacific migrant, a vagrant bar-tailed godwit migrant has recently been seen around Chatham on Cape Cod.

In addition to these Herculean efforts, how birds navigate their migrations continues to baffle researchers. How can such pipsqueaks, weighing only a smidge and armed with pea-sized brains, travel over trackless oceans, forests and tundra to arrive, year after year, to the same spot where they were born or winter?

In Newport, more and more shorebirds are arriving. Consistent monitoring at suitable locations though the upcoming weeks and months will produce 15 to 20 types of shorebirds. An additional dozen or so more uncommon species could also be seen.

And then there is always the possibility of super rarities. A wood sandpiper spotted in Jamestown for a few days in October, 2012 was the sixth North American record of the Eurasian species. Also, five stately American avocets arrived at Easton’s Beach the previous September and stuck around for a couple of weeks. Avocets are a western species only occasionally encountered in New England. Sightings of these vagrant rarities draw birders by the dozens from around the region.

If you happen to observe a shorebird at close range as it is dashing about fattening up, it most likely will pay little attention to you. This is because this tiny slip might have just been born on the remote Northern tundra and hasn’t even been alive for more than a few weeks. You may be the first human it has even seen.

Given its upcoming ordeal, perhaps wish this tourist luck.

Shorebird Viewing:

Third Beach and the adjacent Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge Salt Marsh Restoration Area are the best shorebird viewing spots. Also, the seaweed wrack at Brenton Point State Park, specifically from the rock jetty south around the point to the Newport Country Club border.

All local beaches and saltwater marshes at low tide are fair game and can be productive.

Further afield in R.I.: Charlestown Breachway mud flats, Napatree Point, Westerly and Goosewing Beach in Little Compton.

Best in Southern New England: Plum Island north of Boston in Newburyport and the Chatham/ Monomoy Island complex at the elbow of Cape Cod. Observers at this time of years could record hundreds or even thousands of shorebirds during a single outing.

September is considered the peak season for fall migration, but continues through late-October with stragglers.

Patience is the key to shorebird observation! Take your time when sorting through the flocks.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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