Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey

One of the many reasons I look forward to fall is the Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey. I’ve been volunteering with this project for the past few years, surveying around Willapa Bay and the Columbia River. It’s a great excuse to get outside, even when the weather isn’t so great.

Logo for the Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey featuring silhouettes of three shorebirds and the slogan "Shorebirds count!"The Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey is a project of Point Blue Conservation Science based in Petaluma, CA. Point Blue focuses all along the Pacific coastline, from Chile to Alaska, and in addition to birds they also have conservation projects on other wildlife, as well as the oceans and coastlines they call home. The survey allows them to track not only where shorebirds (and raptors) are going, but how many of each species there are each year.

This year the weather was uncooperative, so we only got to go out for one survey this past Friday. I was lucky enough to go along one of my favorite stretches of the eastern shoreline of Willapa Bay, with a two-hour window in which to survey five separate locations.

Before we get into my survey experiences this year, though, let’s talk a little more about a couple of definitions.

What’s a Flyway?

A map of the United States showing flyways marked over the west coast, Great Plains, Missisippi River Valley, and east coast for the Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey articleA flyway is essentially a bird highway; it’s a major migratory route along which many species of bird travel year after year from their breeding ground to their wintering ground and back. North America has four main flyways:

  • The Atlantic Flyway, along the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean
  • The Mississippi Flyway, which follows the Mississippi River
  • The Central Flyway, across the Great Plains
  • The Pacific Flyway, along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean

Each flyway is important because it offers migrating bird crucial resources like food, safe places to rest, and safety in numbers. The reason I liken a flyway to a bird highway is that each flyway has places that are like restaurants, rest stops, and hotels. For some species wetlands may be important stopping points, while for others forests may be better. Some places along each flyway end up being the wintering grounds for a number of species, while the rest continue on their way south.

Most birds will require fairly wild spaces to land, though some songbirds are more tolerant of urban areas. Larger wetlands are absolute gold along flyways, as they offer refuge to a wider variety of species. As with anything involving wildlife, the more wild, suitable habitat there is, the better; unfortunately all the flyways have seen significant reductions in habitat, particularly over the past century and a half. This is part of why many conservation organizations are so adamant about protecting what habitat remains; if the places to rest and feed become spaced too far apart, more and more birds will die of exhaustion or starvation before completing their seasonal migration.

What’s a Shorebird?

While you may see many types of bird along a shoreline, from great blue herons (Ardea herodias) to mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) to American coots (Fulica americana), not all of them are shorebirds. Rather, shorebirds are a collection of species that are identifiable by their long, skinny legs and beaks, relatively long necks, and streamlined bodies; they tend to be smaller compared to their neighbors like herons and pelicans, with the largest shorebirds being about the size of a duck. The families Charadriidae, Haematopodidae, Jacanidae, Recurvirostridae & Scolopacidae comprise the shorebirds.

Small brown and white shorebird in water for the Pacific Flyway Shorebird SurveyWhile most commonly associated with ocean shorelines, many shorebirds can be found around waterways across North America. The killdeer (Charardrius vociferus) is especially well-known for ranging far away from water. Some shorebirds are only found at small handful at a time or are solitary, like the spotted sandpiper (Actitus macularius) and greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca). Others, such as the dunlin (Calidris alpina) and sanderling (Calidris alba), may be found in flocks of hundreds or even thousands, some of which may include multiple species.

This Year’s Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey

It’s always a bit of a crap shoot as to whether I’ll see any shorebirds or raptors during survey time. While the Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey is always scheduled during low tide to allow the tidal flats to attract shorebirds, there’s never any guarantee that they’ll be at the spot I am assigned each year. Some years I’ve gotten to see thousands of birds representing several species; others, not a single one.

This year, unfortunately, was one of the latter. With the exception of some song sparrows (Melospiza melodia), a flock of ducks too far away to see, and a single red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) spotted on my drive in to my first site (too early to count for the survey), I was alone along the shoreline. The sad thing is that, even a century or so ago, I likely would have seen bigger flocks, not just of shorebirds, but waterfowl, sparrows, and others. The relentless loss of habitat and other resources has severely reduced wildlife populations overall, and even habitat restoration efforts in recent decades, like the immense efforts on the part of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, hasn’t made up nearly enough of the deficit.

Birds-eye view of three bags of trash picked up at the Pacific Flyway Shorebird SurveyStill, I managed to make myself useful during my fruitless survey time, picking up various bits of litter as I walked along each site. Along with the usual cigarette butts and drink containers I found the short bits of yellow plastic rope left over from oyster farming in Willapa Bay; all of the above ended up in three bags of varying sizes, two of which I scavenged along the water.

Maybe I didn’t get to see any shorebirds this year, but hopefully I made at least a bit of a difference with that much less trash ending up in the bay and the ocean. Still, time outdoors is never wasted, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey again this year. If you’re anywhere along the Pacific coastline in California, Oregon, or Washington and would like to join us, here’s information for prospective volunteers.

Did you enjoy this post? Check out my other articles on natural history topics, or my new book on Winter Foraging!

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