Spotted sandpiper.
Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Shorebirds (order Charadriiformes) are primarily small to medium-sized wading birds. There are approximately 216 species of shorebirds in the world, with about thirty-two species commonly occurring in Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan species are members of three families: Recurvirostridae (stilts, avocets), Charadriidae (plovers) and Scolopacidae (sandpipers, snipe, curlews, phalaropes, godwits, willets, yellowlegs). In Saskatchewan, most species frequent shallow wetlands and beaches of lakes, ponds or streams. Most shorebirds feed on terrestrial or aquatic invertebrates, often insects; some eat seeds or plant material. All shorebirds in Canada and the United States are migratory. Some breed in Saskatchewan, mostly around alkali or other shallow prairie wetlands, e.g., American avocet (Recurvirostra americana), Wilson’s phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor), and piping plover (Charadrius melodus), or in upland prairie habitat, e.g., willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus), long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus), marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa), and upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda). Some, such as lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), solitary sandpipers (Tringa solitaria), and short-billed dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus), breed in boreal areas of Saskatchewan. Many other species of shorebirds migrate from South America to breed in the arctic, and stop-over (stage) in Saskatchewan during spring (late April through May) and/or fall (mid July to September). Tens to hundreds of thousands of sanderling (Calidris alba), red-necked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus), stilt sandpipers (C. himantopus), and white-rumped sandpipers (C. fuscicollis) stage in Saskatchewan each spring. The area of Chaplin/Old Wives/Reed lakes has been listed as a site of hemispheric importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, and the Quill lakes area as a site of international importance owing to the large numbers of shorebirds that often use these areas for rest and foraging during the migration period. Shorebirds are known for their variable mating systems, from monogamy and polygyny to polyandry. In most monogamous species, both parents incubate and care for the young. Only female Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicta) incubate, but males often return at hatch to help care for chicks. After laying a clutch of eggs, female Wilson’s phalaropes try to obtain a new mate, since only males care for eggs and young. All Canadian shorebirds except solitary sandpipers lay their eggs in a small depression, or “scrape,” on the ground. The nest is not lined with feathers, but some dead leaves, grass, or pebbles may be tossed into it. The clutch (almost always four eggs) is incubated by one or both parents. Eggs hatch in 3–4 weeks, depending on the species. The young, extremely precocial, are covered in down and have their eyes open at hatch. Chicks are able to walk and feed themselves within hours, and need only be brooded and guarded by their parent(s). Adults normally migrate south in July and August, with young-of-the-year following several weeks later. Around the turn of the century, numbers of many of the larger shorebirds declined due to unregulated hunting, and later as a result of the loss of native habitat to agriculture. Today, only Wilson’s snipe can be legally hunted in Saskatchewan. There is still concern about habitat loss, since most species are dependent upon shallow, temporary wetlands as feeding sites, and these sites quickly dry out during droughts. Of the species of shorebirds breeding in Saskatchewan, piping plovers and mountain plovers (Charadrius montanus) are listed nationally as “endangered,” and long-billed curlews as a “species of special concern.”

Cheri L. Gratto-Trevor.

Further Reading

Alsop, Fred J., III. 2002. Birds of Canada. New York: Dorling Kindersley; Gratto-Trevor, C.L. et al. 2001. P rairie Shorebird Conservation Plan. Edmonton: Canadian Wildlife Service, Prairie Habitat Joint Venture; Hayman, P., J. Marchant and T. Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.