The problem with shorebirds is that they are not always at the shore. Every August, I write a few words about the multitude of shorebirds that move onto Maine’s tidal mudflats. I do some an injustice, because shorebirds also show up elsewhere, and some shorebirds wouldn’t be caught dead at the shore.
The name “shorebirds” is just a blanket description for several different groups of birds that sometimes hang around the ocean shoreline. There are 38 species of shorebird that use Maine for at least part of the year. These include sandpipers, plovers, turnstones, knots, curlews, dowitchers, and phalaropes, most of which can be found around saltwater. But they also include Wilson’s snipes and American woodcocks, which are squat, long-billed birds of inland Maine that abhor saltwater.
An obvious reason that shorebirds congregate at the shore is because that’s where the food is. In spring, many species make a beeline for northern Canada, bypassing Maine. Our mudflats don’t have the abundance of small aquatic insects and crustaceans in May that they have in August, so there’s little point in stopping here. Northbound migrating birds are hurrying to find the best mates and nesting spots in the arctic, which teems with food as the winter ice melts. For example, semipalmated sandpipers in August pass through Maine in huge numbers on the way back to their wintering grounds in South America, but northbound birds are scarce in May.
Whenever I write about places to see shorebirds at the coast, I rudely ignore the ones that aren’t there. I’ll atone for my sins today by mentioning shorebirds that are often found elsewhere.
One species of sandpiper is equally at home on fresh and saltwater. The spotted sandpiper nests along Maine lakes and rivers, and also on offshore islands. Its tail-bobbing behavior is unique among shorebirds. It seldom associates with the other birds on mudflats, as it’s happier poking around rocks at the water’s edge.
One shorebird loathes the shore. The upland sandpiper prefers large blueberry barrens and scruffy grassland areas in Maine. When it’s finished breeding, it heads to the grasslands of Argentina for the winter. It would never, ever, be found on a mudflat.
Likewise, the solitary sandpiper is rarely seen on mudflats. It never congregates with other sandpipers. When I see one in migration, it’s always along the edge of a tiny wetland in Maine, often a drainage ditch or rain puddle. Don’t be surprised to see an 8-inch-tall, gray shorebird, even in a suburban neighborhood. If you spy a suspect, note the white eye ring and dull greenish legs. They seem to like Essex Woods marsh in Bangor in late summer, where multiple individuals routinely turn up.
Buff-breasted sandpipers are rare visitors to Maine. They nest in the grasslands of North American tundra, and seldom get near the coast. When they do, they are as likely to be seen on a football field or a sod farm as they are on a mudflat.
The plover family is another group of plentiful shorebirds. The killdeer is a well-known example. This medium-size, noisy plover is a conspicuous grassland nester in pastures, on mall lawns, and on golf courses. It can be seen on mudflats occasionally, but they do not typically associate with other shorebirds.
Black-bellied plovers are coastal birds, but their close cousins, American golden plovers, are birds of the tundra. They make one of the world’s longest migrations, from the Canadian subarctic to the grasslands of South America. Along the way, a few turn up on Maine mudflats in late summer, but they are equally likely to forage in farm fields with other grassland species. For instance, they are often spied on a sod farm in Fryeburg, and make the list of inland shorebirds spotted at Maine’s largest dairy farm in Clinton each autumn.
Some of the common shorebirds of ocean mudflats also pop up along the muddy edges of lakes that get drawn down in the fall. Sebasticook Lake in Newport attracts a lot of them. Sabattus Pond near Lewiston has a reputation. As the water levels in farm ponds drop in late summer, even these become attractive to migrating shorebirds. When you spot a flock, semipalmated and least sandpipers will be the smallest. Plovers will be larger. Dowitchers have long bills, and probe in the mud with a sewing machine motion.
By the way, I need to have a word with the ornithologist who named it the short-billed dowitcher. That bill is many things, but it’s not short.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.