Shorebird migration is in full swing

Bruce Mactavish
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Greater yellowlegs, ruddy turnstones and various sandpipers collect together as they wait out high tide on the beach at the mouth of the Grand Codroy River.

Birdwatchers look forward to shorebird migration like kids seek out a parade. There is such a variety of common species to see and a long list of uncommon or rare species to look for, there is never a dull moment.

The term shorebird is used to encompass a group of long-legged birds that typically feed near the shoreline. Clans within the overall shorebird super family include sandpipers, plovers, curlews, godwits, phalaropes, snipe and others. Several species of shorebird nest on the island of Newfoundland such as spotted sandpiper, greater yellowlegs and snipe.

Additional species nest in Labrador, but most of the parade of shorebirds at this time of year are migrants that nested in the Arctic already this year and are stopping over in Newfoundland to refuel before continuing farther south. Some species will go all the way to South America. Shorebirds are gifted fliers; the globe is their playground.

Coastal shorelines are the best places to see shorebirds. Kelp washed up on the beaches becomes a bed of decomposing organic material that attracts insects which in turn become fuel for the shorebirds. Tidal flats at low tide expose invertebrate sea life that is also food for shorebirds.

Tidal flats, as a rule, are small in Newfoundland compared to every other province and state on the east coast of North America. This is the price we pay for living on a rock, but there are some beautiful exceptions to this.

Last week I experienced shorebird watching at the estuary of the Grand Codroy River in the southwest corner of Newfoundland. The slow-moving Grand Codroy River widens out considerably before it enters the sea.

The mixing of fresh and salt water causes the formation of rich sediments over a wide area, creating the rich marshes and tidal flats for which the lower Codroy River Valley is renowned.

At low tide, extensive sand and mud flats form just inside the outlet of the river. Using a good spotting scope is essential for the full Grand Codroy River estuary shorebirding experience at low tide.

I walked up river from the bridge on the south side of the outlet. Where the sand and beach grass turns to mud is a good place to stop. From here you can scan all the exposed flats and a couple of muddy coves.

The muddy coves are full of greater yellowlegs up to their bellies in the water. They were dipping for small fish. In the same place a much larger bird, not technically a shorebird, but after the same prey were great blue herons.

I counted 14 of these tall birds. Some could be identified as young of the year by fine white spotting on the wings. The Grand Codroy River valley is the only location where these herons are known to nest in the province.

Flat islands of sand exposed by the low tide held a variety of different shorebird species feeding on the marine invertebrates living in the wet sand.

White-rumped, semipalmated and least sandpipers form a mixed flock of more than 100 individuals busily feeding shoulder to shoulder as they work across the flats.

These small sandpiper species mix well. Plovers feed in a more solitary fashion, yet are still part of a loose group. Some three dozen of each black-bellied plover and semipalmated plover are spread out over the flats. Plovers run a short distance, stop, look, then pick at something on the sand.

Ruddy turnstones are also out on the flats. They are built like little bulldozers with a solid squat body, short sturdy legs and short prying bill.

They are named for their habit of flipping over little stones in search of hidden prey. When there are no stones to turn, they push around the kelp and sea shells revealing delectable edibles for the handsome ruddy turnstones.

If a general alarm is sounded, all the birds fly up at once forming a single flock twisting and turning over the flats. When the danger has passed, real or a false alarm, the jittery shorebirds settle out into their respective groups and resume feeding.

In between low tides, the shorebirds congregate at favoured locations along the inside of the main beach. Here the resting birds can be viewed with binoculars if you are cautious, for they are very wary and will flush easily.

Ken Knowles will be writing this column for the next few weeks while I am away on a vessel off Labrador. Please email Ken at with your sightings and queries.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Grand Codroy River, Arctic South America North America Codroy River Valley

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