Shorebirds like this Lesser Yellowlegs photographed near American Falls Reservoir last week, are migrating and now is the time to see many species that will only stop by for a short while on their way to northern breeding grounds.
A springtime marsh is really a wonder to see. There may be hundreds of bird species that are drawn to the marshes and surrounding habitats as they migrate to more northerly climes. Marshes now occupy a far smaller footprint than historically, making those that still exist even more valuable.
There are species that specialize in all aspects of marsh habitat. Some prefer the deeper open water. Other species focus on water that is a foot or so deep. Still others, collectively called shorebirds, prefer the margins where water and land meet.
The largest group of shorebirds is the sandpipers (family Scolopacidae), which includes birds with sandpiper in their name as well as curlews, snipes, stints, phalaropes, whimbrels, godwits, yellowlegs and more.
As a group, sandpipers are quite variable. In general, they have long narrow wings and understated coloration, often a mix of black, brown, gray and white during the non-breeding season, but beyond that, body design isn’t a good way to identify this group. In size, they range from the tiny least sandpiper, the smallest of all shorebirds, which may weigh only an ounce, to North America’s largest shorebird, the long-billed curlew, which may weigh two pounds. Shorebird bills are longer than those of most similar-sized birds but even these are highly variable in length within the Scolopacidae family, and may be straight or curved. The long-billed curlew has the champion bill, which may exceed six inches, while some others have bills that do not exceed their head length with lots of variability in-between.
Avocets, stilts, plovers (including killdeer), oystercatchers and more are also shorebirds, but not of the sandpiper family. Worldwide, there are about 180 recognized species of shorebirds and North America claims about 60 species.
Many shorebirds are notorious for being hard to identify to the species level. However, recognizing that they are shorebirds at all isn’t quite so difficult if you pay attention to behavior. Most shorebirds are gregarious, meaning that they seek the company of their species and often run in mixed flocks that number from dozens to thousands. They are seldom seen foraging in water more than an inch or two deep and are common on recently drained mudflats. Almost all are carnivores, feeding on worms, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Shorebirds are most often very active feeders, relentlessly chasing up and down the mud or shallow water probing for food.
Shorebirds are world-class travelers with about 70 species that migrate from the top of the world to the bottom of South America and back each year. Many species may make only a stop or two to refuel during this trip, flying as far as 7,000 miles non-stop.
Now is the time to catch shorebirds in migration. Some of the best places to go include the Great Salt Lake which supports between 2 and 5 million shorebirds and the Bear River Refuge, which is part of the Great Salt Lake, albeit freshwater. American Falls Reservoir is a top place in Idaho (and may even be better in the fall), and Market Lake, Mud Lake and Sand Creek WMAs as well as Camas National Wildlife Refuge are all great places to see migrating as well as nesting shorebirds.
As a whole, shorebirds are declining rapidly due largely to loss of habitat. Any chance we get to support legislation and programs that protect or enhance habitat is only in our own best interest.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho