The Odyssey Birds

By Jim Jackson | April 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2001

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 Pacific coast and through the interior, including Missouri.

Due to the drier climate, mudflat conditions are often better to the west, so shorebirds are more common in western Missouri than along the Mississippi River.

Water levels at waterfowl areas that are also managed for shorebirds should be kept low from April through August, and then raised before waterfowl hunting commences in September. Since Missouri's peak shorebird migrations are in May and August, this management regimen seems beneficial for most migrating shorebirds.

Shorebirds are a closely-related group of birds, some of which are not necessarily associated with shorelines. Killdeer, woodcock and upland sandpipers, for example, can be found in such diverse habitats as lawns, forests and prairies. Those, plus spotted sandpipers and black-necked stilts, actually nest here. Best known among these is the brightly colored killdeer that deposits four camouflaged eggs on bare ground, either in pastures or on roadside gravel. This bird has a theatrical flair. Whenever it perceives its eggs are in peril, the killdeer parent decoys away all territorial intruders, human or otherwise, with a broken-wing act that can fool even the most astute bird watcher. Parent killdeer persist in feigning injury even after hatching time when their wide-eyed, downy chicks have scattered for cover. Such behavior is typical of many shorebirds.

The American woodcock, or timberdoodle, is another Missouri favorite This Show-Me State nester spends its nights probing with a flexible, tweezer-like bill into wet woodland soil for earthworms. In early spring, just before sunrise and again at dusk, the woodcock conducts his signature courting ritual. On a grassy knoll away from the woods, he struts and emits what is often described as a nasal peent. He spirals up several hundred feet with barely audible twitters, circles down with a liquid warble and then returns to the same grassy spot for repeated rounds of strutting and vocalized aerobatics. A single performance takes about a minute.

Missouri's remaining three nesting shorebirds are the spotted sandpiper, the upland sandpiper and the black-necked stilt. Spotted sandpipers are best recognized by their habit of teetering, or nervously bobbing their tails, as they feed along the shorelines of our summer streams. Upland sandpipers are best suited to nesting on tallgrass prairies where they occasionally can be spotted perched with lifted wings atop fence posts. Black-necked stilts are relative newcomers to the state. The first discovered Missouri nesting of this long-legged bird was in Stoddard County in 1986, in a region of rice paddies. It has nested there in small numbers ever since.

  • Looking for Shorebirds

  • For good shorebirding in Missouri - especially of odyssey types - wetland refuges are promising whenever mudflats are present. Good destinations include:
  • Ted Shanks Conservation Area, north of Louisiana
  • Marais Temps Clair Conservation Area, northeast of St. Charles
  • Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, southwest of Columbia
  • Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area, south of East Prairie
  • Otter Slough Conservation Area, southwest of Dexter
  • Schell-Osage Conservation Area, north of Eldorado Springs
  • Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, north of St. Joseph
  • Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, west of Brookfield
  • The Corps of Engineer's Riverlands Environmental Demonstration Area, north of St. Louis
  • Other conservation lands that may attract shorebirds include the Aldrich Arm of Stockton Lake, and the upper parts of Truman Lake and Thomas Hill Lakes.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer