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  • Merri-Lee M.

Shorebirds of Late Summer/Early Fall

Every August, birds that have spent the summer nesting in the north begin to make their way south again. Birds that have raised their young from here to the tundra are preparing to make the long journey to their winter homes. The miracle of migration happens twice every year, and many of these birds can be seen in our area in the spring and fall as they pass through. I have tried to share information about summer and winter homes; it is amazing to consider the distances covered by some of these birds.

Most of the shorebirds (or birds that make their way to shorelines to feed) in this blog were seen in small ponds or mudflats, or earlier (in August) along the lakeshore.

Canada Geese, Killdeer, Least Sandpiper


Three birds that might be spotted in Ontario in the breeding/migrating season are somewhat similar in appearance: the Semipalmated Plover, the Piping Plover, and the Killdeer share the dark breastband(s), darker upper body and white belly. However, they nest in different areas, and travel through at different times.

1. The Semipalmated Plover, with its partially webbed feet, is often seen in the late summer in ponds and mudflats with other shorebirds; however, this particular bird was feeding along Sauble Beach in the drainage ditches in late August. Breeding grounds are in northern Canada and Alaska, and these Plovers build their nests on the ground in open areas, much like the Piping Plovers do. I would guess that the advantage for Semipalmated Plovers is that there are few busy beaches along the Beaufort Sea (just a hunch!), and it is unlikely that they have to deal with the hordes of beachgoers and predators that our Piping Plovers contend with during nesting seasons. Semipalmated Plovers seem to be fairly successful in nesting and fledging young, and there have been reports that over 900 of these birds have been sighted in South Carolina in the last few days.

This Semipalmated Plover is likely a young bird, as it lacks the dark black mask and partial orange bill of an adult bird. Nonetheless, in spite of its age, this little bird is likely readying itself for the long journey to the shores of the southern U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico for the winter.

Another Semipalmated Plover (again, likely a juvenile) was seen along the lakeshore at Port Burwell. If you look closely, you can see the partial webbing between the toes.

Both the Sauble and Port Burwell birds were seen alone. It seems like a long way to travel without companions (although they may fly with birds of other species), especially when we consider that these young birds have never migrated before.


2. The Piping Plover is lighter overall, with a small dark "eyebrow" and black breastband. This is an adult bird in summer (alternate or breeding) plumage. In the winter, her bill will be completely black, and she will lose the dark markings. We can see that she is not "semipalmated" -- her toes have no webbing.

Piping Plovers likely nest about as far north as Manitoulin Island, and unfortunately prefer the same beaches as people do on which to build their nests. In mid-summer (whenever chicks are fledged), the males make their way south. Females leave when the chicks are a few weeks old, often by the middle/end of July. The chicks are the last to leave, and usually fly with other juveniles on their first journey south.

Our Great Lakes Piping Plovers winter along the coastline of the southern U.S. (Carolinas and Florida) and Gulf of Mexico. Small populations are being discovered on some of the islands as well.


3. Killdeer are the largest of the three birds, and are usually found in fields and grasslands (and driveways and gardens!) when they are nesting. However, in the fall, they gather in flocks, and are often seen along the edges of mudflats with other shorebirds, geese and ducks. Killdeer have a distinctive red eye-ring and a double


Killdeer nest in our area, and all across Canada, and head to the southern States in the winter.


Another Plover that can be seen in the fall is the American Golden- Plover. This bird, along with Black-bellied Plovers, was found in the Mitchell Lagoons (in 2015) with Mallards and Yellowlegs and others....

The American Golden-Plover has a golden "wash" on its back, and, during breeding season, a dark black underside and throat. This migrant travels all the way from the high Arctic (Alaskan and Canadian tundra) to the grasslands of Central and southern South America.


The Wilson's Snipe, with its disproportionately long bill and trademark orange tail feathers, is elusive and shy during the summer. In the fall, with nesting season behind them, these birds are more easily spotted, and can frequently be found at the edges of ponds foraging in the shallow water or mud. Bold stripes and rust/brown/white feathers make the Snipe easy to identify.

The Wilson's Snipe migrates to the southern U.S. The single Snipe was seen at the Mitchell Lagoons in September, while the pair (there were 3 together) were feeding and resting in the Hespeler Mill Pond in mid-October.


Another bird with an extended bill is the Long-Billed Dowitcher. These wading birds also breed in tundra regions in NW Canada and the northern coast of Alaska. They winter on both the Pacific and Gulf coasts and into Mexico.

This Long-billed Dowitcher is posing in front of a Greater Yellowlegs in the Floradale (Woolwich) Dam. Its rufous belly and neck, along with the beautifully patterned feathers on the upper side, are identifying features.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs are common visitors in the fall. The Greater Yellowlegs nests north of our area, and all across Canada. It is not a "tundra nester", but nests approximately as far north as southern Hudson Bay.

The Greater Yellowlegs has a slightly upturned bill, and .... very yellow legs! It is unusual to see these birds sitting, but this Yellowlegs was resting on the edge of Chalmers Pond near Tiverton in mid-October.


The Solitary Sandpiper is smaller than the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, with shorter legs and neck. The white spots on its dark brown back, along with its dark shoulders, help to identify this Sandpiper. It also has a white eyering and a white patch in front of the eye.

As its name suggests, the Solitary Sandpiper does not migrate in large flocks, and is usually seen alone (in the fall) foraging along the edges of ponds and creeks. The interesting thing about this bird is that it does not nest on the ground, as most other shorebirds do. It prefers to nest in old Songbird nests, high in the trees in the northern spruce bogs of Canada. Solitary Sandpipers usually winter in South America, although some remain in the southern States.


The Stilt Sandpiper is distinguishable by its greenish legs and longer bill that looks as though it turns down slightly at the tip. Stilt Sandpipers breed in the Arctic, and fly all the way to Central and South America for the winter.

This Stilt Sandpiper was seen at the Mitchell Lagoons along with the Solitary Sandpiper pictured above (2015).


The Spotted Sandpiper is one of our smaller Sandpipers. It has a shorter neck and longer tail than other Sandpipers. Nesting occurs throughout Canada along shorelines of lakes and ponds, and migration to the southern States and Central America takes place in late summer/early fall.

This photo shows a Spotted Sandpiper in July, when it is in full breeding or alternate plumage. In the late summer, these birds lose their spots, and have a plain brown back and white chest, with some brown on the sides of the chest. The bill will lose its orange colour, but the line over the eye and the eye-ring will stay white.


The Ruddy Turnstone, named for its habit of turning stones over to find food (really!), is another long-distance migrating shorebird. They nest along the northern shores of Canada and Alaska, and have even been found nesting on islands in the Arctic Sea. They migrate to the coastline of South America. Although their main flyway is along the coast, they sometimes stop over at a few spots inland (along the Great Lakes).

This Ruddy Turnstone was spotted on Sauble Beach in late August. It is a juvenile bird (rusty edges on the feathers, lacking the bright patterns of an adult Turnstone). All Ruddy Turnstones have bright orange legs and two round patches that resemble a vest.


Many small Sandpipers can be found along the shorelines in the fall. Sanderlings are a bit larger than some of the other "Peeps", and have short bills. They are usually seen in a group, and commonly run along the shore quickly, avoiding the waves as they forage.

These Sanderlings are likely juveniles, as they lack the lovely rufous colouring of the adults. These little birds are frequently seen at Sauble Beach in the spring and fall; in the summer, they are found in the high Arctic on their breeding grounds. They winter in many spots throughout Canada and the States, and into Central and South America, especially along the coastlines.

Most shorebirds have 3 toes pointing forward, and 1 hind toe pointing back. Sanderlings lack the hind toe, as this little bird is demonstrating......


Every year Floradale hosts a pair of Black-crowned Night Herons. They can be heard squawking as they fly from their nesting site to the dam to feed in the evenings. Most years they are able to raise at least 2 brown-patterned, orange-eyed chicks that are every bit as noisy as the parents. In late August, the family can sometimes be seen along the edge of the dam as the young Herons learn to hunt for fish and small water creatures.

Black-crowned Night Herons can usually be seen between May and October in this site, and apparently they head to Mexico and the Southern States for the winter. They really are strikingly beautiful birds with their red eyes, subtly coloured feathers, and single plume on the back of the head that tends to "flop" to one side!

2 young Night Herons enjoy the mudflats in the Woolwich Dam when the water recedes in late summer.


There are many more birds of the marsh and shoreline that could be included in a list of fall migrants. I'll add more as I have photos! It is truly awe-inspiring to think of the journeys that these birds make twice each year....


The information in this blog has come from "The Sibley Guide to Birds", the "Cornell Lab of Ornithology" website, and many hours of observation. Any errors are mine.

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