Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network

Marathon Migrants

Shorebird migration
Shorebird migrations are the endurance marathons of the natural world. For Red Knots, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and Hudsonian Godwits — species which breed in the Arctic and winter at the southern tip of South America — migrations span 20,000 miles a year.

  • The migration champion may be the Bar-tailed Godwit, which winters in New Zealand and flies over 6,000 miles non-stop to Alaska to breed.
  • Red Knots fly every spring from Brazil to Delaware Bay non-stop, prompting one shorebird biologist to suggest that by its 13th birthday, a Red Knot will have flown a distance equal from the Earth to the Moon.

"We need to make sure that WHSRN is sustained in the future, as more development, pollution, and disturbance increasingly threaten these incredible birds and their astounding annual journeys."

Nan Harris, Manomet Trustee

Movable Feast

What could be the profit in risking a migration requiring such incredible endurance? The short answer may be as simple as "dinner."

Shorebirds' remarkable hemispheric wanderings coincide with the occurrence of a predictably abundant food supply at their migratory stopover and destination points along the globe.

Photo Credit: Stuart Mackay

Consider the case of Red Knots: Their nesting season in the Arctic tundra is June and July, a time when insect life is booming. Though this insect feast is predictable, it is short. Just as Arctic insects begin to diminish, around July to September, the Knots are off their nests and finding a burgeoning banquet in the tidal flats along the Atlantic coast.

Protecting these critical feeding and staging stopovers is therefore a key component of shorebird conservation. Since these sites may be where a large percentage of one species congregates at once, stopover sites afford some of the best opportunities to learn more about shorebird status and behavior.

Endless Summer

There is another payoff to migrating long distances besides abundant food. Shorebirds live in endless summer.

Traveling thousands of miles, shorebirds come down in places where the climate is more benign and less stressful for them. For example, in June, their Arctic breeding grounds offer 24 hours of sunlight. Having double the daylight hours gives shorebirds that much more time to feed and store energy. Food is the constant, driving motivation, and for these hemispheric migrants, departure time for the next journey is never far off.