Shorebirds

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Shorebirds include the avocets, oystercatchers, phalaropes, plovers, sandpipers, stilts, snipes, and turnstones. In general, they have long, thin legs with little to no webbing on the feet. Differences in bill length and shape allow shorebird species to preferentially forage for food within their shared habitat, either on dry soil, mud, or in shallow water.

Shorebirds are famous for their globe-spanning migrations, sometimes entailing thousands of miles of travel. Areas like the Oregon coast provide what's known as "stopover" habitat: a place to land and rest and fatten up en route. Shorebirds eat a variety of invertebrate prey including worms, insect larva, amphipods, copepods, crustaceans, and mollusks. 

  • Sanderling

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    By late fall the Sanderlings are back from their Arctic Circle breeding grounds, here to fatten up on tiny marine invertebrates before disembarking in June. These squat little sandpipers are perhaps the most widespread shorebird in the world, appearing on every continent save Antarctica and often in staggering numbers—an estimated 300,000 breed in North America alone. They migrate between 3,000 to 10,000 miles every spring from the tundra to temperate and tropical beaches around the globe, so that it is possible to see wintering Sanderlings in places as disparate as Thailand, Tacoma, and Tierra del Fuego.

  • Red-necked Phalarope

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    An uncommon and transitory visitor to our coastal marshes in winter and spring, Red-necked Phalaropes are one of the smallest and most eccentric of shorebirds. Like the closely-related Red Phalarope, this Arctic-nesting bird spends the majority of its time on the open ocean, feeding on plankton at upwellings and other convergences for up to 9 months at a stretch. (The third phalarope species, Wilson's, is more of a landlubber, inhabiting the continent's interior.) Phalaropes typically feed while afloat, frenetically kicking their legs to bring particles to the surface—a technique that incidentally causes the bird to spin like a top. Also like other phalaropes, this species is sexually dimorphic but in an unexpected way: females are larger and more brightly plumaged than males; females compete heatedly for mates; and males do all the nest-building and brooding.

  • Western Sandpiper

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    The Western Sandpiper breeds mostly in Alaska and winters along the coast from California to South America. They are the most common migrating shorebird seen on the Oregon coast. Western Sandpipers are found in estuaries, beaches and mudflats, feeding and resting before resuming their migration. As a sandpiper, this species belongs to an informal group of small shorebirds known as "peeps," so-called because of their almost incessant twittering amongst themselves. 

  • Least Sandpiper

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    Seen in dense, wheeling flocks on Oregon’s estuaries, inlets, flooded fields, and inland grassy areas, the Least Sandpiper is the smallest “peep” worldwide. They feed mainly on invertebrates probed from mud—often working in concert with the larger Western Sandpiper—but will also eat plant materials and insects. This species breeds in Alaska and across the Canadian territories, wintering in British Columbia south along the coast to California. Nests are made from moss and grass in a depression or hummock on the tundra. 

  • Dunlin

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    Formerly called the Red-Backed Sandpiper, the Dunlin breeds in the Alaska tundra east to Hudson Bay. In breeding plumage Dunlins have a prominent black belly, but otherwise are similar in appearance to other "peeps". They winter along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and are the last to migrate through Oregon in the fall, due to the late molting of their flight feathers. Dunlins can be found on beaches, mudflats, and inland shores, probing the sand for invertebrates.

  • Semipalmated Plover

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    The Semipalmated Plover can be found breeding in Alaska and east across Canada to Nova Scotia. While a rare breeder in Oregon, it winters along the coast from British Columbia to South America. This shorebird rests and eats on sandy beaches, mudflats, and salt marshes. Unlike other sandpipers, the Semipalmated Plover does not probe the sand or mud for food. Its shorter bill is instead adapted to plucking mollusks and crustaceans from the beach’s surface. “Semipalmated” is an ornithological term referring to the plover’s webbed front toes; “palmate” means hand-shaped.

  • Western Snowy Plover

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    The Pacific Coast population of the Western Snowy Plover breeds from southern Washington to Baja California. The population was federally listed as threatened in 1993. Today, approximately 100 breeding adults are found in Oregon; most of these remain year-round. These birds prefer sandy coastal beaches and dry mudflats for breeding and feeding. Like the Semipalmated Plover, the Western Snowy Plover does not probe into the substrate for food; it relies instead on sight to forage, scanning the ground for invertebrates. Because these birds lay eggs directly on open sand, public use at some beaches on the south-central coast of Oregon is restricted from March 15 to September 15 to protect nesting habitat.

  • Black-bellied Plover

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    The worldly Black-bellied Plover ranges further north than any other plover, breeding in the high Arctic and wintering as far afield as Central and South America. Its relatively large size and large eyes allow it to flourish in a variety of habitats—from coastal beaches to upland freshwater marshes—feeding into the night on burrowed invertebrates. Like watchful meerkats in the Kalahari, Black-bellied Plovers serve as sentinels within mixed flocks of foraging shorebirds: they’re wary and quick to raise the alarm when danger is apparent.

  • Whimbrel

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    One of the larger shorebirds, Whimbrel breed on all continents except for Antarctica. In North America this species nests in Alaska and Canada, and can be found wintering along the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf coasts. These sickle-billed shorebirds frequent open mudflats, sandy beaches, and pastures. Whimbrels eat mostly invertebrates, crabs, worms, and fish, but while breeding, fruits constitute part of their diet.

  • Long-billed Dowitcher

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    Long-Billed Dowitchers breed on the Arctic tundra and migrate along western North America, wintering from British Columbia to south of Mexico. During migration, this is the most abundant dowitcher in Oregon, often seen at estuaries and bays and grassy inland areas. Extremely similar is the Short-billed Dowitcher; both share habitat preferences though the long-billed species is more partial to freshwater areas. These shorebirds use their namesake bill to probe the substrate for aquatic invertebrates, amphipods, bivalves, even earthworms if feeding in flooded pastures.

  • Killdeer

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    The Killdeer occurs throughout the state (sometimes far from water) and is one of the only shorebirds that both breeds in Oregon and is present year-round. These peripatetic birds inhabit flooded agricultural fields, vacant lots and golf courses; also mudflats, sandy areas, short grass prairies. In Oregon, nesting begins around March, with the female laying her clutch of four eggs on bare ground. If threatened, she’ll launch into an elaborate show of faking an injured wing, in an attempt to lead the threat away from her brood. She then flies off, giving the distinctively strident call of her species: “tyeee deew deew!” This feinting tactic is widespread among plovers, an adaption to nesting in the open.