Shorebirds are special. Let’s show up for them!

Across the Caribbean region, and right around the world, citizen scientists, ornithologists, students, naturalists, conservationists, bird-lovers and birdwatchers, and environmentalists will be searching for shorebirds. World Shorebirds Day is Tuesday, September 6, 2022 and the period when the bird counters will be counting is from September 1 to 7.

Shorebirds are quite enchanting birds, all shapes and sizes. They were my first introduction to birding, when my father used to take us children down to the chilly, often wet and windy British seashore (usually in winter time) so that he could watch distant birds down on the mudflats of the south coast. Of course, he was the only one with binoculars! We children used to stand around, cold, bored, and longing to go home. But the shorebirds held a magic for my Dad – as they do now, for me.

Caribbean Shorebirds in all shapes and sizes. From left to right: Sanderling, Semipalmated Plover, Willet, American Oystercatcher. Photos from Macaulay Library: Sanderling by Adam Jackson-ML374383651, Semipalmated Plover by Matthew Addicks-ML267273921, Willet by Brad Imhoff-ML172089971, American Oystercatcher by Isaias Morataya-ML187534121) Designed by Josmar Esteban Marquez

Shorebirds are pure delight. If you watch this lovely short film by Esther Figueroa, you will see what I mean. They win you over.

In case you didn’t know, shorebirds are quite tricky to tell apart. Those darn Sandpipers! And – what is the difference between a Greater Yellowlegs and a Lesser Yellowlegs? To help you, BirdsCaribbean has posters and ID cards that you can download and share here. Two of their webinars also helped to identify the different species – speckled, dappled, long-legged, bright-eyed, pottering around in the mud, paddling in puddles, poking their stubby beaks into the water.

One thing you might find, though, is that shorebirds aren’t necessarily to be found on the shore. At least in Jamaica, you might find them further inland, in unexpected places. But start with beaches, wetlands, mangroves, salt flats, and ponds. Basically, watery places.

An early arrival in Jamaica: the Solitary Sandpiper breeds in Alaska and Canada, and comes down south to the Caribbean for the winter. Photographed by Ann Haynes Sutton.

Something else you might not know: shorebirds migrate, like crazy. Lazing on a hot day on the south coast one day and watching a Black-bellied Plover (Grey Plover) patrolling the very edge of the sea from dawn until dusk, it was amazing to think that these birds, like many other shorebirds, fly long distances. This little bird likely bred in the Arctic (yes, way north) in the summer and winters in the Americas.

In this simple information sheet for children, the biggest threat to this dapper little bird is simply described as “humans.”

Indeed. Shorebirds face a range of threats – all created by humans (by now I hope we understand that climate change falls into the “human-induced” category). Also, sadly and unnecessarily, the hunting of shorebirds (for “fun”) is a problem in some parts of the Caribbean – between 20,000 and 25,000 are killed annually. What kind of “sport” is that?

Then there is the ever-present, ever-growing “development” issue. Whether it’s housing or tourism (for example, the wanton destruction of a large area of mangroves and a forested hillside to build a huge hotel and casino in Green Island, Hanover) – this is a major factor. The places where shorebirds like to stop and feed (and stay for the winter) are being destroyed. And sorry – but replanting a few mangroves here and there is not going to make a huge difference. And remember that mangroves, as well as shorebirds, thrive in tidal places – if the water doesn’t move, they do not thrive. Everything is connected.

Sand mining and other forms of extraction are also a threat – not to mention pollution of our coastal waters. I wonder sometimes: are we intent on destroying what remains of our untouched, natural environment? It looks pretty on tourism posters, but at this rate there will not be much left to boast about in our ads enticing the visitors to fly to our island.

The shorebirds that have been a part of that precious coastal landscape for so long – fragile, yet resilient – are dwindling in numbers. This article from Cornell University vividly describes their decline – seventy per cent in North America alone since 1973.

We can do something about it. One of the things we can do, in furtherance of our knowledge and understanding of what’s happening out there, is to look for and record these species, so that we know better how to protect them.

I would also be happy if the citizens of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and to a lesser extent Barbados, would put down their guns, and aim their binoculars and cameras instead.

Counting shorebirds in the Turks and Caicos Islands. (Photo: Simon Busuttil)

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