Updated: Jun 16, 2020
Happy World Oceans Day! Oceans play a critical role in the life cycles of a large proportion of the world’s birds, especially shorebirds and seabirds. Some of these birds are the world champions of long-distance migration, so that you can see them far from the sea. For example, an estimated 200-300,000 birds of at least 38 shorebird species travel the Central Flyway in the Great Plains, smack in the middle of North America, which most well-traveled migration routes in the world. Breeding species here include the federally threatened Piping Plover and endangered Interior Least Tern, who breed on sandbars in the Platte River, and have benefited from protection through the U. S. Endangered Species Act. State-listed breeding species of conservation concern include the Long-billed Curlew, White-faced Ibis, American Woodcock, Wilson’s Snipe, and Black-necked Stilt. The Platte River Valley, where IBCP has focused songbird research, is also an important stopover for Buff-breasted Sandpipers traveling between their Arctic breeding grounds and South American wintering grounds.
While shorebirds don’t tend to travel in large, conspicuous flocks, what their migrations lack in spectacle they make up for with enormous variety resulting from tens of millions of years of natural selection! Plovers forage on the ground while sandpipers, snipes, and curlews probe shallow water and mud. Phalaropes swim in circles to create whirlpools to trap their tiny prey, while avocets hunt for food
Piping Plovers. Photo by Kristen Rosamond.
using their upturned bills to sweeps the water’s surface. Sadly, one shorebird we cannot expect to see is the Eskimo Curlew, which once used Nebraska as a major spring staging area in flocks reported to be up to a mile wide, but is now apparently extinct due to overhunting as well as global warming. But keep your eyes out for the Sanderling, the shorebird who may hold the long-distance record for migration through the central Platte River Valley. This humble bird of only two ounces, pictured above in the photo by Māris Strazds, may fly as far as 20,000 miles in a single year between its Arctic breeding grounds to Tierra del Fuego in South America!
Sanderling. Photo by Maris Strazds.
Of course, you will also find shorebirds on coastal beaches, such as New York’s Fire Island, where IBCP’s Kristen Rosamond monitored Piping Plovers last summer. Fire Island is home to a diverse array of shorebirds and seabirds including American Oystercatchers, Ruddy Turnstones, Black Skimmers, and Willets, to name just a few! The Piping Plover is an endangered migratory shorebird species that is also found on Fire Island. It nests primarily on beaches and tidal flats. Human disturbance is a huge threat to these birds, as people use many beaches found in plovers’ breeding and wintering range for recreation and development.
Kristen worked with Virginia Tech Shorebird Program to assess Piping Plovers’ response to habitat changes from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The Piping Plover population on Fire Island increased greatly after Hurricane Sandy because the hurricane flattened dunes and removed vegetation, creating more habitat for the birds. Piping Plovers living on dynamic barrier islands thrive from natural disturbances, but many of these areas are engineered to remain stable in order to benefit humans. Findings from this research help inform plover managers about what types of habitat and resources are needed to continue to conserve Piping Plovers in the future. Shorebirds and seabirds depend on our oceans, and any steps we can take to protect this ecosystem will benefit entire communities of organisms living in or near these incredible bodies of water.