Shorebirds 101: Learn the Beach Birds

Shorebirds, also known as waders, are a diverse group of birds commonly found along beaches, coastlines, wetlands, and mudflats. With their long legs and bills adapted for probing sand and mud, shorebirds are iconically suited to their intertidal habitats.

For beachgoers and birdwatchers alike, shorebirds provide a glimpse into the rich biodiversity supported by coastal ecosystems. Learning to identify and understand shorebird species can open up new dimensions of appreciating a day along the shoreline.

This article provides an introductory guide to familiarizing yourself with the most common shorebirds found along North American beaches and coastlines. We’ll cover shorebird identification, behavior, migration, threats, and conservation.

An Introduction to Shorebirds

Shorebirds belong to the order Charadriiformes, which includes bird families like plovers, oystercatchers, avocets, stilts, sandpipers, and others. With over 200 species worldwide, shorebirds exhibit a huge diversity of sizes, shapes, and colors.

Some key features unite shorebirds and adapt them for life along the coast:

  • Long legs – Ideal for wading in shallow water and mudflats. Different shorebirds have legs of varying lengths.
  • Long bills – Allow shorebirds to probe into exposed sediments to find prey like invertebrates, crustaceans, and mollusks. Bill shape and length varies by feeding habits.
  • Compact bodies – Reduce drag and enable swift, agile flight.
  • Cryptic coloring – Camouflages shorebirds against sandy/muddy backgrounds.

Shorebirds flock along coastlines worldwide, with migrations spanning continents for some species. Their presence coincides with tidal fluctuations, as falling tides expose the intertidal feeding areas shorebirds rely upon.

Next, we’ll cover some of the most common shorebirds likely to be encountered along North American beaches.

Common Shorebirds to Spot on the Beach

The shorebirds below represent just a subset of the diversity found across North America. This list can serve as a starter guide for beginning to identify species you’re likely to spot on coastal outings.


Key features: Stocky, compact bodies. Short to medium bills. Distinctive black and white breeding plumage. Cryptically colored chicks.

  • Semipalmated Plover – Small with a single black breast band and orange legs. Common on East Coast beaches.
  • Piping Plover – Sand colored with orange legs, black bands on head and neck. Endangered species.
  • Killdeer – Notable for two black breast bands. Often found on land away from water.


Key features: Large shorebirds with thick, knife-like orange or red bills specialized for opening shellfish. Distinctive black and white plumage.

  • American Oystercatcher – Brick red bill and eye ring. Common on Atlantic and Gulf coasts.


Key features: Slender bodies, very long blue legs, and long, upturned bills. Distinctive black and white plumage with reddish heads.

  • American Avocet – Common on beaches across North America. Sweeping scythe-like bill.


Key features: Generally the largest family of shorebirds, with a huge diversity of sizes and bill types. Many species have streaked brown plumage.

  • Sanderling – Abundant on North American beaches. Dark legs, medium bill. Constantly runs in and out with waves.
  • Western Sandpiper – Small with black legs and drooped bill tip. Less common on Atlantic coasts.
  • Dunlin – Black belly patch when breeding. Curved bill droops at tip. Common migrant.
  • Marbled Godwit – Very large sandpiper with long, slightly upturned bill. Pinkish underwings.
  • Ruddy Turnstone – Stocky and short-legged with a black and white striped head. Distinctive orange legs.


Key features: Small, slender bills and needle-like feeding style. Breeding plumage features bright red necks. Spinning feeding behavior.

  • Red-necked Phalarope – Most commonly observed phalarope species on Atlantic coasts.


Key features: Bright yellow legs and long bills. Usually found in shallow wetlands.

  • Greater Yellowlegs – Long bill slightly upturned. Common migrant on Atlantic coasts.


Key features: Gray shorebirds with long, straight bills. Distinctive bold black and white pattern when breeding.

  • Willet – Common on Atlantic and Gulf Coast beaches. Loud, piercing calls.

This list covers some of the most frequently encountered shorebirds, but keep your eyes peeled for less common species as well! Shorebird diversity varies regionally, so a great way to build your identification skills is to use a field guide and get out exploring your local beaches.

Shorebird Behavior and Feeding Habits

Shorebirds exhibit some signature behaviors and styles of feeding:

  • Rapid running/pecking – Shorebirds like plovers and sandpipers use rapid foot movements to stir up prey and quickly snatch items as they are exposed. Watch for birds frantically pecking and running up and down with the surf.
  • Probing – Many shorebirds probe bills into mud or sand to locate prey buried below the surface, sometimes up to several inches deep.
  • Scanning – Shorebirds will stand motionless and scan their surroundings for extended periods before sprinting off to strike.
  • Digging – Some larger shorebirds use their bills to dig into sand and mud, leaving small pits behind. Watch for oystercatchers digging for shellfish.
  • Spinning – The unique feeding style of phalaropes, which involves spinning in tight circles to stir up prey from water.

Shorebirds consume a variety of invertebrate prey types including marine worms, mollusks, crustaceans, and insects. Larger species may even eat small fish.

The diversity of bill sizes and shapes among shorebirds reflects the variety of foods they have adapted to gather in coastal habitats.

Why Are Some Shorebirds Threatened?

Shorebirds worldwide face an array of conservation threats, with population declines documented in many species:

  • Habitat loss – Coastal development, sea level rise, and erosion diminish shorebird habitats. They rely on a narrow band of intertidal habitat that is easily degraded.
  • Disturbance – Beach recreationists, vehicles, pets, boats, and noise can interfere with feeding and nesting behaviors.
  • Pollution – Shorebirds are vulnerable to oil spills and toxins that accumulate in coastal environments. Prey species may also decline.
  • Predators – An increase in populations of foxes, raccoons, gulls and other predators takes a toll on shorebirds.
  • Climate change – Rising sea levels gradually shrink habitat. Migration timing falls out of sync with food sources.

To address these threats, wildlife organizations have developed shorebird conservation plans spanning whole regions of the continent to identify species of greatest concern and strategies to stabilize their populations.

Shorebird Viewing Tips and Ethics

When observing shorebirds on the beach, following some simple viewing guidelines can help reduce disturbances:

  • Maintain a respectable distance and use binoculars/telephoto lenses rather than approaching birds.
  • Avoid walking through flocks – instead skirt around them. Leave space between birds and the water’s edge.
  • Keep dogs leashed and do not allow them to chase shorebirds. Teach children not to frighten birds.
  • Respect signage demarcating nesting areas, where staying on marked paths prevents crushing eggs.
  • Avoid flying kites or drones near large shorebird flocks, which can flush them unnecessarily.
  • Be conscious of tidal cycles – when mudflats are exposed, birds are actively feeding and should not be disturbed.

With some basic etiquette, we can marvel at the beauty of shorebirds on the beach while ensuring our actions don’t threaten their survival during vulnerable life stages. Responsible birding and beachgoing can happily coexist.

Shorebird Migration: Epic Round-Trip Journeys

For many shorebird species, migrations span entire continents and hemispheres. Some of the most extreme migrators include:

  • Arctic Tern – Breeds in the Arctic and winters in Antarctic seas, clocking over 40,000 miles annually.
  • Bar-tailed Godwit – Breeds in Alaska and winters in New Zealand. May fly nonstop over 7,000 miles.
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper – Weighing just 1.5 ounces, it flies from the Arctic to South America yearly.
  • Red Knot – Makes a 9,000 mile journey from Arctic to southern Chile and back.

These ultra-marathon migrations are driven by the search for abundant food during breeding season and access to rich coastal habitats during winter. Some shorebirds migrate along defined “flyways” – major routes they follow cyclically.

Timing migrations correctly is critical to ensure food will be available upon arrival. Changing climate patterns can disrupt connections between migration and food sources.

Unique Adaptations for Extreme Migrations

Completing globe-spanning migrations requires special adaptations:

  • Energy reserves – Shorebirds build critical fat stores before migratory journeys. Fat provides energy and can compose up to 50% of a migrating bird’s body weight.
  • Flight muscle efficiency – Shorebirds possess large breast muscles geared for sustained, efficient flight over massive distances.
  • Navigation – Birds follow cues like the sun and stars, along with mental maps and sensing of geomagnetic fields to navigate unfamiliar terrain.
  • Frequent stopovers – Stopping to rest and feed during migrations is critical. Many shorebirds gather in massive numbers at migratory hotspots.
  • Rapid maturation – Arctic breeding shorebirds like sanderlings develop from eggs to flight-ready juveniles within a month in order to migrate south before winter.

For such small creatures, shorebirds have evolved astounding capabilities enabling their marathon global journeys. But the demands of migration also leave them vulnerable to habitat degradation and climate disruptions. Maintaining networks of stopover habitats across continents is crucial to sustaining migrations.

Fantastic Places to See Shorebirds

Some top places in North America to witness shorebirds in action include:

  • Boundary Bay, Canada – On the Pacific flyway, over 100,000 western sandpipers stop here biannually during migration.
  • Copper River Delta, Alaska – Critical migratory crossover for millions of western sandpipers heading to Arctic breeding grounds.
  • Laguna Madre, Texas – Sheltered inlets harbor wintering redheads, avocets, stilts, and plovers.
  • Grays Harbor, Washington – Huge flocks of dunlins, dowitchers, and other shorebirds feed in bay mudflats.
  • San Francisco Bay, California – Home to over 1 million shorebirds annually across 250,000 acres of tidal habitats.
  • Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas – Vast inland wetlands host endangered piping plovers and whooping cranes.
  • Delaware Bay, New Jersey – Horseshoe crab eggs sustain hundreds of thousands red knots refueling during migration.

Discovering hotspots near you can offer front row access to the spectacle of shorebird migrations unfolding. Even observing a busy wintering ground or small flock probing a beach adds glimpses into their awe-inspiring world.

Spotlight on the Red Knot: Long-Distance Champion

The red knot provides a model of shorebird resilience thanks to sustained conservation efforts. While still listed as threatened, some populations show signs of stabilizing after facing near extinction.

Red knots breed in the remote Canadian Arctic then embark on a staggering 9,000 mile migration spanning forests, mountains, and coastlines to reach wintering grounds as far south as Tierra del Fuego.

One major threat arose when overharvesting of horseshoe crabs reduced eggs that red knots rely on to quickly gain weight for the next leg of their journey. Conservationists now work to ensure crabs are sustainably harvested.

Like many shorebirds, the red knot also faces pressures from coastal development, pollution, and changing climate patterns. Protecting a chain of habitats across their continental path remains critical to aid this unique long-distance wanderer.

When the first red knots begin reappearing along northern coastlines each May, we can marvel at the flight plan nature has programmed into such a small bird to achieve one of the animal kingdom’s most awe-inspiring migratory routes.

The Threat of Oil Spills: Long-Term Impact on Coastal Ecosystems

Oil spills represent an acute and long-lasting threat to shorebirds and coastal ecosystems. In addition to direct oiling of feathers, spills have complex cascading impacts.

When oil enters coastal environments, it contaminates:

  • Estuaries and tidal flats where birds feed
  • Sediments and invertebrate prey species
  • Beach environments where birds nest

Spilled oil persists in environments for years, washing ashore periodically to re-contaminate areas. Smaller spills chronic occur from sources like leaking ships.

Birds coated in oil lose critical insulation and buoyancy provided by waterproof feathers. Even small amounts of oil on beaches can be picked up on shorebird’s feet and beak as they probe sediments. Ingesting oil through preening can then poison birds.

Habitat impacts have long-term consequences for food chains that shorebirds depend on. Restoration from sizable spills may span decades. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico still reverberates through regional food webs and bird populations.

Preventing future spills through tighter regulations and improved safety measures is critical. Rapid containment response to new spills can help reduce spread and impacts when prevention fails.

Initiatives to Restore Shorebird Habitat

With development consuming coastal wetlands and a third of shorebird species in decline, conservationists are working to restore vital habitat. Efforts include:

Removal of Invasive Plants

  • Invasive species like phragmites and cordgrass overtake mudflats, reducing feeding areas. Controlled burns, mowing, and herbicide treatments restore open habitat.

Control of Predators

  • Population management of foxes, gulls, and other predators through relocation or exclusion from nesting areas boosts productivity.

Public-Private Partnerships

  • Land trusts team with governments to acquire and protect coastal wetlands and establish reserves. Corporate sponsors provide funding.

Living Shorelines

  • Natural elements like oyster beds are integrated into shorelines to stabilize sediment, reduce erosion, and create habitat.

Water Management

  • Managing flows, salinity, pollution levels and sedimentation rates optimizes intertidal area and mimics natural tidal cycles.

By taking an ecosystem scale approach, shorebird conservation looks to sustain the mosaic of habitats migratory birds rely on across thousands of miles.

The Sanderling: A Beach Bum Birder’s Favorite

Of all North American shorebirds, the sanderling is often a top hit thanks to its hyperactive presence on sandy beaches.

Sanderlings breed in the high Arctic then spread down both coasts for the rest of the year, where beachcombers observe their constant scurrying in the waves.

On their breeding grounds sanderlings must hatch and fledge chicks within just one month before the brief Arctic summer ends. This rushed lifestyle continues during the nonbreeding season as they frantically probe for invertebrates on the move.

Sanderlings seem to be in a constant rush and state of alarm as they scan for predators, dash in and out with waves, and take brief paused crouched down to rest.

Seeing sanderlings turn from gray-brown in winter to a rich rusty breeding plumage in spring provides a yearly marker to anticipate. Take time to observe a sanderling’s endearingly excitable personality next time you see these shuffling shorebirds on the beach. Their energetic presence reminds us to slow down and appreciate the moments they rush right past.

The Piping Plover: Icon of Coastal Conservation

The tiny piping plover holds an outsized role as an icon of coastal conservation efforts in North America. Listed as federally endangered in the 1980s, this snowy shorebird continues to face immense pressure from human recreation and development along migratory beaches.

Piping plovers nest right on open beaches in small scraped depressions, making perfectly camouflaged eggs and chicks vulnerable to people, dogs, vehicles, and predators. Parents flee intrusions, exposing the young. Chicks can freeze or overheat if adults are kept off nests.

Atlantic and Great Plains populations are gradually recovering thanks to habitat protections on nesting beaches, public education programs discouraging disturbances, and monitoring networks to track breeding productivity. But more progress is still needed for populations to stabilize long-term.

Observing piping plovers is a special coastal treat. Their small size and subtle beige and sand colors blend right into the beach. Listen for plaintive whistled “peep-lo” calls as they scurry among wrack lines and dunes like small windup toys.

Shorebird Conservation: How You Can Help

Citizen scientists and beachgoers can aid shorebird conservation through simple actions:

  • Participate in coastal cleanup events to reduce plastic pollution that birds ingest.
  • Volunteer for beach steward programs educating people about nesting birds.
  • Report harassment of birds to raise awareness of impacts.
  • Avoid walking dogs off-leash where shorebirds feed.
  • Support land preservation programs with donations or volunteer habitat restoration work.
  • Follow leash laws, avoid driving on beaches, and respect protected areas.
  • Share bird photos only when following ethical practices that don’t disturb them.
  • Report oiled birds and wildlife in distress to rehabilitation networks.

Our individual actions to minimize harm and disturbances collectively make a difference. Your commitment to stewarding coastal habitats