The Odyssey Birds

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Published on: Apr. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

Many shorebirds make epic migrations. Although some, such as spotted sandpipers, travel only short distances between wintering grounds and nesting grounds, others journey annually from wintering quarters in Central or South America to their nesting grounds in the Arctic. Given the long distances involved and the tenacity and stamina required to make such long journeys, I like to think of shorebirds as odyssey birds.

These nomads travel in search of mudflats, or unvegetated shallows, where they can find aquatic invertebrates to satisfy their specialized diets. Whenever such accommodations are not present along their usual migration routes, like during floods, shorebirds must alter their flight patterns to find them. In other words, their fueling stops depend entirely on habitat conditions.

The American golden-plover is the distance champion of all odyssey birds. After wintering on the pampas of Argentina, they migrate north in compact flocks. From the Yucatan Peninsula, they cross the Gulf of Mexico and continue up through eastern Texas. By March, they might be spotted briefly resting and feeding on the lowland fields of Missouri or-less often-on mudflats. By June they are nesting on Arctic tundra between the Bering Sea and Hudson Bay.

In August, they take a different route south. This time they fly southeast to the Canadian Maritime Provinces to New England. From there, they launch out over the Atlantic for a non-stop flight of some 3,000 miles to Brazil and back to Argentina's vast grasslands. For a bird no bigger than a robin, the golden-plover's elliptical migration of 20,000 miles has no parallel.

No less fascinating are the migrations of shorebirds that rely entirely on mudflats. Flying swiftly in mixed flocks, they look over all wetlands for suitable feeding and resting sites. Shallows six inches deep might bring down avocets that swing their upturned bills like scythes to stir up tiny minnows and aquatic invertebrates. Water four inches deep might attract greater yellowlegs, while their close kin, lesser yellowlegs, are foraging in water two inches shallower. They might be accompanied by several species of "peeps"-sparrow-sized shorebirds that are tricky to tell apart -that probe the shoreline mud for food.

"Feel feeders" may feed in the water while an assortment of "sight feeders," such as black-bellied plovers, semipalmated plovers and buff-breasted sandpipers, fly overhead. These are but a small sampling of the many shorebird species that migrate through Missouri.

In America, the major flyways for wetland birds-both shorebirds and waterfowl-are along the Atlantic coast, the

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