Shorebirds: Birding Tips

Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) walking on the beach
Piping plover (Charadrius melodus). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.

Shorebirds are a group of birds with similar lifestyles and habitats. There are 49 species of shorebirds regularly seen in North America. They are all classified in the order Charadriiformes.

For birders the shorebirds mean stilts, curlews, sandpipers, plovers, and turnstones. These are the birds you commonly see along freshwater and saltwater coasts and shores.

Other water birds such as ducks, swans, geese, shearwaters, petrels, storm petrels, boobies, cormorants, auks, and skimmers, also migrate along shores and coasts.  (waterfowl migration)

What Do Shorebirds Look Like?

Most shorebirds share similar behavior and characteristics. Most live and feed near the water’s edge. That water can be freshwater or saltwater coasts and shores.

  • Sexes look similar
  • Small to medium size
  • Thin bills and long legs
  • Many shorebirds have webbing between toes
  • Live and feed along the water’s edge.
  • They feed on the ground or along water’s edge.
  • Their nests are scraped spots in the ground.
  • Their calls are peeps, whistles or short trills. They don’t sing.

How are Shorebirds Classified?

The species that are frequently found in North America include 76 species and 19 genera. Forty-nine species are regularly seen in North America.

Shorebird scientific families include:

  • Charadriidae (Plovers),
  • Haematopodidae (Oystercatchers),
  • Recurvirostridae (Stilit and Avocets),
  • Jacanidae (Jacanas)
  • Scolopacidae (Sandpipers, Phalaropes, Curlews, Godwits, Dowitchers, Snipes, Turnstones, and Woodcocks)
group of sanderling shorebirds scurrying along the water's edge.
Sanderlings. Photo: Arthur T. LaBar, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Migration Patterns

Flying at high altitudes the birds migrate along saltwater and freshwater coasts and shores. Shorebirds migrate great distances over land even over deserts as long as there is food along the route.

During spring and autumn the shorebirds migrate to and from breeding and main living grounds. They breed and nest far inland near freshwater lakes and marshes in the far north or Arctic regions.

They spend the nonbreeding winter along the water in lakes or oceans in the lower 48 U.S. States or further south.

Migrating shorebirds Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey, Photo: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cape May New Jersey and Shorebird Migration

Cape May National Wildlife Refuge is significant for a lot, but we cant talk about it without mentioning its importance to shorebirds. The refuge’s five-mile stretch along the Delaware Bay is a major resting and feeding area for migrating shorebirds and wading birds each spring. The Delaware Bay shoreline is a major shorebird staging area in North America second only to the Copper River Delta in Alaska! Each year hundreds of thousands of shorebirds stop to rest and feed during their spring migration from Central and South America to their Arctic breeding grounds. The arrival at Cape May of more than twenty shorebird species-primarily red knots, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings and semipalmated sandpipers-coincides with the horseshoe crab spawning season which occurs in May/early June. The crab eggs provide an abundant food supply, which these long-distance flyers use to replenish their energy reserves before moving on. In May, virtually the entire North American red knot population gathers along Delaware Bay beaches! LWCF has conserved 5486 acres of this Delaware Bay hot spot. – US Fish and Wildlife Service

Stunning photo of a Least Sandpiper?. Photo: Mike Baird from Morro Bay, USA, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons. Untouched photo.

Where to find the Shorebirds

Shorebirds are found in open habitats especially mudflats and shorelines. They are seen poking and prodding in the sand along shorelines and wetlands during most of the year, foraging for small aquatic insects, worms and other animals. During the breeding season they can be found along smaller bodies of water like small rivers and ponds.

Your local birding groups have the best information on local shorebird hotspots. Field guides that focus on your region or local area are helpful. Once you know where the hotspots are head to the bodies of water, no matter how small.

If your birding along the ocean, ocean going boats may host birding excursions to observe aquatic birds far from the shore.

Key Sites:

Places: Nature areas, wildlife refuges, and protected seashores along the coasts and shorelines

East Coast: Delaware Bay, Maryland/Virginia Barrier Islands, Cape Romain and Bay of Fundy

South and West: Bolivar Flats, Estero Rio Colorado, The Grasslands, Mono Lake, San Francisco Bay, CA, Grays Harbor,

Interior: Cheyenne Bottoms, Lahonto Valley

An American Oystercatcher forages on the beach in Atlantic City, NJ, consuming mostly mole crabs.
An American Oystercatcher forages on the beach in Atlantic City, NJ, consuming mostly mole crabs. Photo: Charles Homler d/b/a FocusOnWildlife, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Identifying Shorebirds

To prepare before going out to spot the shorebirds, spend some time browsing the aquatic bird section of your field guides. Color of bills, legs, and feet is as important as plumage. In Autumn, plumage differences between species are small and hard to tell one species from another.

Spotting scopes are useful for spotting birds flying along the coast and far out over the water. I highly recommend the Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds. ( This link is an affiliate links. I may earn a commission for Amazon purchases using the links. This does not affect the price you pay. Check out the used copies and ignore the crazy prices.)

Take note:

  • Where the bird is foraging
  • Bill shape and length
  • Body proportions
  • Plumage
  • Male and females look similar

Wrapping Up

Autumn is a perfect time to visit the seashore and watch and listen to shorebirds. The crowds of summer beach goers are gone. The beach towns and nature preserves are less crowded. Shorebird birding is a great weekend getaway.

In conclusion, I gave a basic overview on the shorebirds and what makes them unique among the birds. I hope you find this post useful.

Works Consulted

These links are affiliate links. I may earn a commission for Amazon purchases using the links. This does not affect the price you pay. Check out the used copies.

Reilly, Edgar M., and Gorton Carruth. The Bird Watcher’s Diary. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. out-of-print. 

Sibley, David, Chris Elphick, and John B. Dunning. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Second edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Stokes, Donald W., and Lillian Q. Stokes. Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001.

Resources on Shorebirds

Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network

This website focuses on North American and International Shorebird Conservation, shorebird natural history, maps, important sites, etc.


  1. Donna, thank you for this clear and engaging survey of appreciation of shorebirds. It made me want to get out there! So glad you focus on the positive and the engagement, and not with: “well, shorebirds are basically impossible, but if you spend 20 years learning plumages you might be able to tentative identify some of them…” Your writing is always crisp, actionable, and on point.

    • Hey Steve! – Who doesn’t like a challenge? With shorebirds at least you’re chillin’ at the shore. I say focus on learning two or three species and still sound like an expert. Thanks for your always upbeat and encouraging comments.

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