The shorebird-watching season is open

Bruce Mactavish
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A birder’s year is not complete without a few months of shorebird watching.

A flock of whimbrels glide in for a landing on a coastal barren to feed on berries. — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram

This past spring there was a stellar influx of rare Icelandic shorebirds in eastern Newfoundland and Labrador after prolonged east winds in April and May.

Spring shorebird excitement can be incredible, but it is undependable and involves far fewer individuals than fall migration. The birder’s lexicon defines fall migration as the southbound migration of birds.

For shorebirds, the southward, or fall, migration spans a five-month period from July to November. There are 25-30 species of shorebirds occurring regularly during the fall migration period in the province. Unlike the springtime, you may pick a weekend at your convenience to go shorebirding during fall migration.

Shorebirds come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and names. Godwit, turnstone, dowitcher and phalarope are some of the unusual names, while sandpiper, plover and snipe are more familiar shorebird names.

Only one quarter of the shorebirds occurring annually on the island of Newfoundland actually nest in Newfoundland. The rest nest farther north, some in Labrador but most in the Arctic.

The shorebird cycle of renewal of life happens in a hurry, especially for those that nest in the Arctic. Summer is short, but the days are long and busy in the Arctic. Some birds are there for as little as four weeks before they start heading south again.

In the world of shorebirds, the duties of males and females do not meet the stereotypical pattern of male defends territory while female sits on the eggs and looks after the young. The female still has to lay the eggs, but with more than one species of shorebird it is the male who does most of the incubation of the eggs and looking after the young.

Whatever the arrangement, many of the adults are freed of parental duties by early July and head south.

Take, for example, the whimbrel.

This is the largest of regularly occurring species of shorebird in the province. They are big enough to have been targets for the dinner plate in the not too distant past. They are still known as the curlew in parts of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Whimbrel is a classic example of a shorebird in a hurry. They arrive at Arctic breeding grounds in early June and are the first Arctic shorebirds to reach Newfoundland and Labrador during fall migration. The vanguard arrives around July 1.

By mid-month, flocks of several dozen are found in the habitat of choice, the coastal barrens on headlands and islands of Newfoundland and Labrador.

They feed on berries. The first berries to ripen are the crowberries, also known as blackberries in this province. The berries grow in mats on coastal barrens.

Even if the whimbrels are a little early for the ripening of the first berries, there are enough insects living on the barrens to keep them well fed.

Whimbrels are with us from July to September. The adults arrive first while the juveniles are not ready to migrate until August.

As with many shorebirds, it is inherent magic how the juvenile birds manage to navigate a migration route without any previous experience or guidance from the adults.

Shorebirds are excellent fliers, shaped by the wind and open spaces. The world is their domain. They can travel pretty well where they want as long as they have the fuel. The fuel comes from the food they eat and can be stored as body fat.

A long history — or, more properly, evolution when applied to birds — has shown whimbrels that there is a successful migration route between Arctic nesting grounds and wintering grounds in Brazil that includes a major refuelling stop in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Modern day radio telemetry has proven to us what we already suspected was happening. Whimbrels from one of the important nesting areas in Canada, the MacKenzie River delta in the Northwest Territories, fly diagonally across northern Canada to the berry barrens of coastal Newfoundland and Labrador.

Here they spend a few weeks fattening up on berries before risking it all and flying due south over ocean all the way to Brazil. It is a journey of several days of continuous flying. They do it because they can, and safely.

Good places to look for flocks of whimbrel in July and August are along the Cape Race road, St. Shotts barrens, Cape St. Mary’s, Point La Haye, Cape Bonavista and coastal barrens on the Northern Peninsula.

Whimbrel is an upland species. They are just one species of shorebird, each with the same reason for being but with a unique lifestyle.

The least sandpiper, our smallest shorebird, has a somewhat less grandiose life cycle. It over winters in the southern United States and does not need to migrate any farther north than Newfoundland and Labrador to find nesting habitat. All it needs is open bog land found commonly in the boreal forest across Canada.

This demure little sandpiper is not shy. They arrive without fanfare in mid-May and leave in September.

When nesting duties are over in July, they fly out to the coastal beaches and tidal flats. They are among the first sandpipers to hit the beach during fall migration.

Soon they are joined by semipalmated plover, semipalmated sandpiper, spotted sandpiper, ruddy turnstone and greater yellowlegs.

There are shorebirds from many walks of life between the whimbrel and least sandpiper. The majority use beaches and tidal flats for feeding and restocking fuel reserves during our summer months before continuing their fall migration farther south.

This is a good time to head to the beach with your binoculars and see what you can find. Maybe you will luck into a short-billed dowitcher. Imagine that!

This is the season of the shorebird.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Arctic, Brazil Canada MacKenzie River Northwest Territories Northern Canada Cape Race United States

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