Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Every year in April and May the Pacific Northwest experiences a mad rush of thousands and thousands of shorebirds—sandpipers and plovers—on their way north to their Arctic and Subarctic nesting grounds.

This is nowhere more obvious than around two big coastal estuaries, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay. These estuaries are extremely productive of the invertebrates that the shorebirds eat. Prey animals are present at very high densities in the mud and sand of these estuaries, for example about 10,000/square meter at Bottle Beach, on the south side of Grays Harbor, one of the most productive areas.

This seems astronomical but pales in comparison with 100,000 individuals/square meter of one species of amphipod in the Bay of Fundy. Nevertheless, it is sufficient density to support the tens of thousands of shorebirds that visit the area for up to a month each spring. Individual birds stay only a few days, fattening up for a flight that may be only 200 kilometers to Roberts Bank in British Columbia or as much as 900 kilometers to the Copper River delta in Alaska, then on to arctic breeding grounds.

The invertebrates that fuel these birds are primarily amphipods and polychaete worms. The amphipods are about 5-6 mm long, and some of the polychaetes are in the same size range. Other polychaetes are called “thin worms,” up to 30 cm long but only 1 mm in diameter! They can be in such high densities as to almost bind the mud together.

The three most abundant species in spring migration are Western Sandpiper, Dunlin, and Short-billed Dowitcher, in descending order. Most of the big flocks you see will include these species. There are many other species present as well, and searching them out gives the observer variety as well as spectacle. Other common species include Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Greater Yellowlegs, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Sanderling, and Least Sandpiper, with numerous others even less common but out there somewhere.

No migration is evident at the beginning of April, but by the middle of the month, Greater Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers have arrived in numbers. During the last two weeks of the month, all the species move in, most of them in full breeding plumage, and peak right around the first of May. Numbers fall off after that but are still impressive through mid May, and some of the later migrants are present until the end of that month. Species that peak late include Red Knots and Long-billed Dowitchers.

Herb Wilson of Colby College, Maine, found that these hordes of shorebirds had little effect on the invertebrates on which they fed. He erected “exclusion cages” at Bottle Beach, meter-square cages that kept shorebirds out, and after the migration compared the numbers of invertebrates under each cage with the original numbers there and the numbers just outside. He found no fewer invertebrates outside than inside; thus the numbers had not been reduced by the birds.

The spectacle can be seen in feeding areas at lower tides and at roosts at higher tides. The ocean beach itself has throngs of shorebirds on peak migration days, but it is discouraging to see the high levels of human activities (joggers, horseback riders, dog runners, mopeds, pickup trucks) that disturb each flock again and again on a busy weekend day. The birds get back to feeding immediately after each disturbance, and we can only hope that they are able to take in enough nourishment to make it to their next destination on time.

Dennis Paulson

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