Ohios skies are beginning to fill with a lot of southbound feathered traffic, as birds of all kinds begin migrating to warmer climates for the winter. Deserving some special recognition among this flock of migrants are shorebirds, such as sandpipers, plovers, snipes and other waders.
Shorebirds make some of the longest migrations known. Several species fly more than 8,000 miles between their wintering grounds in southern South America to their breeding grounds north of the Arctic Circle. Not only do these migrants cover amazing distances, they often fly nonstop for three or more days!
To the untrained eye, many shorebirds may appear confusingly similar. As a group, they are small, white birds with gray-brown markings. Shorebirds have long legs for wading in water, long bills to search for food and long wings with streamlined bodies allowing for swift flight over long distances. When they arent flying, shorebirds spend much of their time on mudflats, marshes and beaches consuming enormous amounts of food to fuel their journey south.
Lake Eries coastal region is one of the Midwests major rest areas for shorebirds, providing the lesser golden plover, short-billed dowitcher, least sandpiper and many others a protective and nutrient rich habitat to renew their fat reserves.
Wildlife experts conservatively estimate more than 75,000 shorebirds visit these marshes annually during northbound and southbound migration treks, and believe that number to potentially exceed 100,000. It would not be unusual, they say, for a birder to see more than 30 different shorebird species at one time in a single Lake Erie marsh.
Shorebirds, such as the Killdeer and spotted sandpiper, begin appearing in Ohio as early as March, with others arriving through the middle of June. The length of time a shorebird spends in a staging area such as Lake Erie depends upon the species. Some are in Ohio as briefly as a few days, while others will have spent the entire summer here, departing for the southern hemisphere as late as November.
Peak migration for Ohios southbound shorebirds is August through September, and many locations along Lake Erie such as Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge provide excellent viewing opportunities.
In fact, a large section of Lake Erie marshlands in northwest Ohio were recently dedicated as a Regional Shorebird Reserve. Through this designation, these marshlands became part of a global network protecting an estimated five million acres of habitat and 30 million shorebirds.
The Lake Erie Marshland Reserve is only the second such reserve in the Midwest and the first in the Great Lakes to receive this designation.
While Ohios north coast is the main staging area for shorebirds, other places across the state draw large numbers of these migrating globetrotters. Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in Wyandot County and Big Island Wildlife Area in Marion County are two examples of inland habitat that attract shorebirds. Other locations include Hoover Reservoir in Delaware County and the Portage Lakes in Summit County.
A good field guide and a ready supply of patience are great ways to start learning all about shorebirds. But knowing the difference between a greater and a lesser yellow legs isnt necessary. Simply viewing these astounding fliers is in itself rewarding.