Exploring the wonder of birds through the Migratory Shorebird Project

I used to think of birds as delicate creatures, airy and carefree, with pretty feathers and pretty songs. Then I saw the film “Winged Migration” and came to understand just how gritty and daring these lovely creatures really are.

The film uses bird’s-eye footage to document the treacherous treks birds across the globe make each year—over the Himalayas, across oceans, into raging storms, and through hunters’ lines-of-fire, and anyone who sees it can’t help but respect the animals and wonder more about birds’ adventuresome lives.

Citizen scientists count dunlins every year with the Migratory Shorebird Project. Credit: Richard Casserly

Every fall, biologists and citizen scientists come together to explore this kind of wonder by participating in the Migratory Shorebird Project, the largest coordinated survey of wintering shorebirds on the Pacific Coast of the Americas that spans 10 countries from Canada to Peru.

The project was established five years ago to build upon similar surveys conducted during the 1990s and looks at species population trends and habitat use to understand how urbanization, climate change, and other human impacts affect shorebirds and their habitats.

Point Blue Conservation Science leads the international study and works with partners to schedule surveys from November through January. One of these partners, the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO), is leading surveys around the South Bay on Monday, December 4, and is looking for volunteers to help.

Shorebird Migration

Every year, more than 1 billion birds migrate up and down invisible sky paths known as the Pacific Flyway to reach their breeding and wintering homes. These habitat stopovers and destinations include everything from Arctic tundra and Northwestern rain forests to valley wetlands and tropical mangrove beaches.

Shorebirds in flight. Credit: Jean Halford

Many of these birds are shorebirds, a group of avian species that includes sandpipers, plovers, stilts, avocets, and other birds distinguished by their narrow bills, long legs, pointy toes, and pulsing flocks.

Many shorebird species are thought to be declining and this survey helps scientists understand which species are at most risk and what kinds of habitat they need to thrive.

Last year biologists and volunteers surveyed 24 coastal estuaries and 66 routes of interior wetland habitat throughout California, Oregon, and Washington. Surveys were also coordinated in 10 other countries, including Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and Canada.

The data are stored at the California Avian Data Center, which has tools to let people to analyze bird population trends, species distribution, and abundance of birds by habitat type or location.

Citizen Science

Citizen scientists with the project go through an online training, are assigned a specific area to monitor, follow a protocol, and enter data online.

Past volunteers in SFBBO’s surveys say there are a variety of reasons they participate.

“I love doing the surveys for many reasons,” said Donna Nicoletti. “The most amazing counts for me happen when we unexpectedly come upon large groups of shorebirds in unlikely places in the marsh, like the year my birding partner and I counted a group of 975 willets on an archipelago in a small pond next to an airport.”

Citizen scientists count whimbrels every year with the Migratory Shorebird Project. Credit: Jacqueline Deely

Some volunteers are motivated by the challenge.

“It’s a fun morning, pretty intense, keeping notes on everything from the weather to the ground cover to the peep counts,” said Pete Dunton. “Time and tide wait for no one, which adds some motivation to keep moving.”

Others say they volunteer because it allows them to continue learning about birds.

“I volunteer to be better informed and better able to identify what kinds of birds are out in my own backyard,” said Vickie Eggert.  “I have a passion for birds and want to see and learn more about them.”

They also volunteer because they value to role science has in ensuring bird conservation.

“I believe science is the best way to understand our world by providing insights into proper management through informed decisions,” said Eric Goodill.

The data collected by SFBBO volunteers is especially important to the success of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, one of the largest wetland restoration projects on the west coast, said Steve Rottenborn.

“I worked on the team planning for the South Bay Salt Ponds Restoration Project and I understand the importance of effective monitoring of shorebird numbers as the project restores tidal habitats and enhances certain ponds for more intensive use by shorebirds,” he said. “The annual Shorebird Survey is the most important component of this shorebird monitoring, so I want to do my part to assist.”

Being a part of something bigger themselves and helping ensure that there are healthy bird populations for the future is also a strong motivator for volunteering, said Pat Gordon.

“I love to be out there along the shoreline, watching (and counting!) the masses of shorebirds,” she said. “It makes me think things will be all right, that we have done a good job protecting this most valuable habitat.”

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

Categories: Animals, Birds, Project Profile

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About the Author

Kristin Butler

Kristin Butler

Kristin is a freelance journalist and Outreach and Communications Director for the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory. She holds a B.A. degree in Political Science from Whitman College and an M.S. in Mass Communications from San Jose State University. Kristin has worked as an environmental reporter for The Argus newspaper and was a monthly contributor to Bay Area BusinessWoman News. She's also directed communications and fundraising initiatives for a number of environmental and youth serving organizations, including Earthjustice and Girls Inc.