There are few events in nature more exhilarating then standing on an ocean beach in the brisk winds of autumn as flocks of shorebirds mill about at the water’s edge. The wind may be so strong you have to lean into it to hear the soft peeping cries of the eagerly feeding birds. And as you scan the flocks there is suspense in not knowing what species might show up next, maybe a rare migrant from Siberia, maybe a new bird never seen in the Western Hemisphere.
September and October are the best months on the Pacific Coast for seeing shorebirds from the arctic to their wintering grounds in Central and South America. These birds gather along California’s rich and varied shoreline in numbers and diversity that would astound any observer.
Some of the shorebirds are so small it’s hard to believe they migrate thousands of miles each year. Take the 1-ounce Western Sandpiper, for example, that can fly 1,900 miles in one continuous 42 hour flight. Or the Bar-tailed Godwit, which is thought to fly 7,000 miles nonstop from Alaska to Australia. It’s not surprising that when these birds do land, they are hungry and seek out the best places to feed.
The San Francisco estuary, one of the most important estuaries in the world, is one of the places where millions of shorebirds pause during migration or stay to spend the winter. Over 700,000 Western Sandpipers at a time have been recorded here, and a large portion of the world’s Marbled Godwits remain through the winter to feast on the organisms living in the mudflats. Smaller, but equally vital estuaries, dot the entire California coast like a string of pearls.
This great flow of birds along the California coast relies on many habitats in addition to rich estuaries. You can expect to find turnstones, tattlers, and oystercatchers jeering loudly among wave-splashed rocks on exposed headlands. On long sandy beaches you can walk among groups of delightful little Sanderlings as they run back and forth chasing waves. Upland marshes and fields host flocks of sleeping Willets and Long-billed Curlews.
There is much to be learned about the fabric of these habitats and the birdlife that depends on them. Many sites in California are threatened by development before scientists can even document their importance, or relay word to policy-makers. People who love the California coast, and its birds, can play an important role by observing the shorebirds of their area and reporting what they learn. With this level of attention and care we can hope that future generations may share the exhilarating experience of watching this magnificent movement of birds.
David Lukas, co-author of Sierra Nevada Natural History