Pennsylvania Shorebird Migration

By dgross September 9, 2013

Greater Yellowlegs by Jacob Dingel, PGC

Pennsylvania birders get a kick out of seeing shorebirds just because they are so atypical of the state’s “birdscape.” This state may not be the most notorious place for shorebirds, but that makes it all the more thrilling, rewarding and challenging to find and experience these charming travelers. By “shorebirds” we mean sandpipers and plovers even if they are not visiting the shore. Shorebirds are fascinating creatures that have hemispheric-wide migration patterns. They also have been called the “windbirds” since they are among the most romantic of birds, moving with the wind and bringing us memories of faraway places including beaches and marshes where their wistful calls can be heard. These birds truly are citizens of the world! One day, they are poking their beaks into mud or sand in one place, and a few days later they can be hundreds of miles away in another state, country or continent. To consider the windbirds, one must think globally even while birding locally.

Shorebirds need our help. Not only are they threatened by the many natural and human-induced stresses on their habitat, but there is growing evidence that this group of birds is especially vulnerable to the threats of climate change. Coastal wildlife communities are not only threatened by rising sea levels but also tidal surges and the increased violence and frequency of storms. It takes only a few minutes of high water to wipe out a fragile habitat that is either the foraging ground or nesting area of any bird. So, we need to keep a close eye on shorebirds. They may also adjust their migration to the changing conditions. New mudflats or sandbars can yield a treasure trove of shorebirds. So, it is good to keep looking! The International Shorebird Survey (ISS) is the standard monitoring protocol for standardized shorebird monitoring , other observations are very welcome in PA eBird.

The International Shorebird Surveys (ISS) and the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (PRISM) are now being run through the eBird website. If you are unfamiliar with these shorebird surveys, which depend on the efforts of volunteers, you can read more about them at the ISS eBird portal. For those of you that already participate, it is very, very important that you enter your ISS surveys only through the ISS eBird site. Please use this site only for your ISS surveys, and please use core eBird or PA eBird portal for your other bird observations. This allows the eBird team to identify which surveys were ISS surveys and which were not. Don’t worry, every sighting you submit to eBird, whether to core eBird, to ISS eBird or to a regional portal likePA eBird, will be completely integrated with your personal eBird account.

Of the 51 shorebird species that nest in North America, Pennsylvania is home to only five breeding shorebirds: the Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Upland Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe and American Woodcock. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania suggests that each of these species has experienced population declines at varying degrees as indicated by Breeding Bird Surveys. The sparsely distributed Wilson’s Snipe of marshes and bogs and the more widespread American Woodcock, an upland bird of young forest and moist fields, are both identified as species of Maintenance Concern in Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Action Plan (PGC-PFBC 2005). The Upland Sandpiper, a shorebird with a strong preference for grassland habitats, is listed as a state Endangered Species and a species of High Concern in the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan (USFWS 2004).

Wetland, grassland and young forest habitats in Pennsylvania are of great importance to these resident shorebirds. However, the Commonwealth is no less important to its “visiting” shorebirds–the passage migrants traveling the Atlantic Flyway on northbound or southbound migrations. Most shorebirds are long-distance migrants and fly thousands of miles between Arctic breeding grounds in the far north and wintering grounds in South America. Some may travel 8,000 miles or more to reach breeding grounds and wintering grounds. It’s not unusual for a shorebird to travel hundreds and even thousands of miles in a single flight. These marathon flights require an enormous amount of energy, making top quality stopover habitat along the flyway critical. Shorebirds must efficiently replenish calories by locating rest stops with plenty of high quality food and protective cover in a timely manner. Often these stops are no more than islands of suitable habitat within a less suitable environment. Pennsylvania hosts roughly 35 species of shorebirds as they stop to rest and refuel before completing the arduous journey.

Overall, Pennsylvania offers migrating shorebirds nearly 730,000 acres of wetlands. Not all shorebirds require the same habitat type or circumstances for resting and refueling but they are regularly found in areas of sandy and gravel beaches, the mudflats of rivers and streams, freshwater marshes, tidal marshes and along shorelines of ponds and lakes. Ephemeral, farm fields with flooded depressions and potholes attract a variety of species, so it is good to keep searching for such stopover hotspots. Shorebirds dine on the nutrient-rich invertebrates available in each of these habitats.

There are several major stopover sites that are designated as Important Bird Areas (IBA) such as the Conejohela Flats along the Lower Susquehanna River where Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers and Spotted, Semipalmated, Least and Pectoral sandpipers have been reported recently. Presque Isle State Park reports American Golden Plover, American Avocets, Western Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones to name a few; Presque Isle is one of the few places that Sanderlings can be found in the state. John Heinz NWR at Tinicum where it is common to see Solitary, Semipalmated, Spotted, and Pectoral sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover and occasionally Stilt Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher and Hudsonian Godwit. Pymatuning Hartstown Complex in Crawford County and Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon counties are also major stopover spots, they also are listed as state IBAs.

Pennsylvania eBirders continue to help monitor these vital stopover sites as well as identify overlooked and newly-discovered sites by faithfully reporting their shorebird observations. Reports also document the timing of migration. So far this season, we know shorebird migration is progressing thanks to reports trickling in from Lake Erie to Tinicum Marsh. This year’s observations have ranged from commonly observed species like the Solitary Sandpiper to the rarely observed Red-necked Phalarope.

Other sites in western Pennsylvania with good shorebird potential include: Conneaut Marsh IBA, Erie National Wildlife Refuge IBA, Moraine State Park and Jennings Environmental Education Center IBA, Shenango Reservoir IBA, State Game Lands 151 and 284 IBA, Somerset Lake IBA, Yellow Creek State Park IBA, Imperial Grasslands in Allegheny County, Big Beaver Wetlands in Beaver County and Tamarack Lake in Crawford County.

In the center of the state several areas hold reliable opportunities such as: Marsh Creek Wetlands and Cowanesque Lake in Tioga County; Montour preserve in Montour County; Colyer Lake in Centre County; the Old Crow Wetlands in Huntingdon County; and Wildwood Lake Park in Dauphin County.

In the east, look for shorebirds at Lake Redman in York County; Lake Ontelaunee in Berks County; Octoraro Reservoirr in southern Lancaster County; Green Lane Reservoir in Montgomery County; and Peace Valley Park in Bucks County. The birders of Northeastern Pennsylvania, especially Kevin Ripa and other Wyoming Valley birders, have been making great discoveries at Plymouth Flats on the Susquehanna, Luzerne County. There are other places along rivers and in agricultural areas that can attract many shorebirds for a day or two when the conditions are right. The next found shorebird hotspot may not even have a name yet. There are many other little wetlands and stretches of rivers that deserve visitations by eBirders.

Many Pennsylvania wetlands and mudflats are small and scattered across the state, which explains why shorebirds may drop out of the sky to rest and feed in every region. The mudflats may be very temporary places for mad foraging of hungry birds. Shorebirds will often frequent local spots such as fields that are prone to flooding and the muddy edges of farm ponds. Although far from ideal, these travelers are not above stopping at alternative habitats and have been found foraging in the parking lot retention pond surrounding a local department store, drainage ditches and the sewage lagoons of our urban areas. Some of the more regularly observed passage migrant shorebirds like the Solitary Sandpiper are seen in a wide variety of locations including wet roadside ditches and river banks. Each submission helps tell the tale of the “windbirds” in Pennsylvania.



A Guide to Critical Bird Habitat in Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Important Bird Areas Program. G. J. Crossley, Compiler, Audubon Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, PA.

Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network

U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan. 2004. High Priority Shorebirds – 2004. Unpublished Report, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Dr., MBSP 4107, Arlington, VA, 22203 U.S.A.

PA eBird and “Pennsylvania Birds” data.

PGC website for the State Wildlife Action Plan and other related documents. 

By Kathy Korber and Doug Gross, PGC