Astronomically speaking, we are only a third of the way through summer. But once August arrives, the term “late summer” starts to creep into our speech, and, to the dismay of school kids everywhere, back to school ads appear in the papers.
I remember hating those ads. It felt way too soon to see the “s” word showing up anywhere – cruel, even. For those who pay attention to birds, there’s an avian equivalent of those too-soon back to school ads around here, and it’s migratory shorebirds.
As summer is just getting underway, these bird bummers show up to say “the end is near." In reality, shorebirds like dowitchers, Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings, and Whimbrels have been in southbound “fall” migration mode since early July, and even songbirds like Yellow Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes are making their first pre-migratory movements. It may be unsettling to think of fall right now, but birds don’t really get a summer vacation – this is do or die time for them. Breed, migrate, repeat – the future of the species depends on their survival today, so there’s no time to waste. So the story goes.
But maybe a more comforting way to look at shorebird migration is to imagine that they, like many here on the Cape, are in fact coming for a bit of a vacation. You could think of the adult shorebirds that arrive in July from their Arctic breeding grounds as empty nesters. Sure, they come to the Cape to fatten up before continuing on their migration, but maybe they’re also checking out the real estate market and having a little “me” time. They certainly arrive haggard from the stress of raising their young, young they have actually left behind on the tundra to fend for themselves. So maybe that Semipalmated Sandpiper you see bathing in a marsh pool isn’t just some biological automaton mindlessly performing necessary feather maintenance. Maybe she’s having a little spa time away from the kids after a stressful June. And these parents know stress – PTA meetings and soccer practices have nothing on defending your hors d’oeuvres-sized chicks from Arctic Foxes and Snowy Owls.
However you choose to view the arrival of these birds, I think it’s worth reflecting a bit on the miracle of what they accomplish in a year. These creatures, some weighing less than an ounce, have spanned the hemisphere powered only by their tiny wings. Arriving on their nesting grounds in Arctic Canada, Alaska, or maybe Siberia, they often find snow on the ground. With just a month to make a nest, incubate their eggs, and raise their chicks before it’s time to migrate again, they only get one shot. Climate change has made the weather less predictable in their impossibly short breeding season, and is also causing the tree line, with its attendant suite of predators, to march ever northwards. So I recommend seeing these guys while you still can.
While the best summer shorebirding spots, like South Beach in Chatham and Nauset Marsh in Eastham, have become harder to access in recent years, Morris Island in Chatham and Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay sanctuary offer opportunities to see shorebirds up close, if not in the same numbers. The sanctuary also offers tours to the shorebird feeding flats of Tern Island in Chatham as well as kayak birding trips to some good flats inside Nauset Marsh. Barrier beaches like Chapin Beach in Dennis and Sandy Neck in Barnstable offer good chances to see these migratory wonders, as do the west end of Nantucket and the east end of the Vineyard.
I encourage all of you to find a place to study shorebirds and really get to know this impressive group of animals. Just be respectful of what they go through to get here and don’t interrupt their spa time – they really hate that.
This piece first aired in August, 2018.