The Shorebird Character of the Intermountain West

Click here to see a map of the migration route of the Wilson's phalarope. Map courtesy of author.

When the term “shorebird” or “sandpiper” is heard, many folks form an image of a flock of birds zipping down our nation’s coastlines.  Although many species do congregate in coastal areas, the inland lakes, ponds, and wetlands of the Intermountain West provide critical migration stopovers and important nesting areas for many shorebirds.

Indeed, the Intermountain West likely supports more than one million breeding shorebirds, including the majority of North America’s populations of snowy plovers, American avocets, black-necked stilts, and long-billed curlews. From a survey conducted in 2007 and 2008, it was found that wetlands in this region were home to more than one-third of all snowy plovers breeding in the U.S. and Mexico.  Recent work completed by Dan Casey, Northern Rockies Conservation Officer with the American Bird Conservancy, suggests that about half of all the long-billed curlews nesting in the U.S. and Canada can be found in grassland, salt marsh, reed swamp, and sage-steppe habitats of the Intermountain West.  Lastly, the region also provides important breeding habitats for mountain plovers and Wilson’s phalaropes.

The Intermountain West is especially important to migrating and staging shorebirds, particularly during the post-breeding period. Beginning in July, shorebirds numbering in the millions converge on the Great Salt Lake in Utah and surrounding wetlands, while hundreds of thousands of birds amass in the Lahontan Valley in Nevada and on Mono Lake in California.  Even smaller wetland complexes, such as the Blanca Wildlife Habitat Area (Blanca WHA) in Colorado, support tens of thousands of shorebirds during post-breeding migration. Learn more about a study done on shorebird use of Blanca WHA here.

The Great Salt Lake is of hemispheric important for shorebirds.

Many of the shorebirds passing through the region undergo epic migrations.  A marbled godwit at the Great Salt Lake may be fueling up for a flight to Peru.  The neurotically feeding Wilson’s phalarope observed at Blanca WHA may soon be spending the winter on saline lakes of the high Andes Mountains.  A short-billed dowitcher leaving the Lahontan Valley might keep heading south until reaching the Bay of Panama’s extensive mudflats. 

The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) recognizes sites that provide shorebird stopover habitat at three levels of importance: hemispheric (>500,000 shorebirds annually), international (100,000-500,000 shorebirds), and regional (20,000-100,000 shorebirds).  The mentioned sites (Great Salt Lake, Lahontan Valley and Mono Lake) have been recognized for their hemispheric and international value to shorebirds, and one additional site, Springfield Bottoms/American Falls Reservoir in Idaho, has been recognized for its regional value.  The Blanca WHA and seven others also meet or exceed qualification for designation as WHSRN sites of regional importance.  Each of these wetlands is a vital link in the chain of stopover places shorebirds need to accomplish their twice-yearly migrations.

Long-distance migrations expose shorebirds to serious risks throughout their journeys. Here in the Intermountain West, many partners are committed to habitat delivery that will help maintain healthy populations of these birds while they sojourn through our region. This requires a collaborative conservation effort across cultures, political boundaries, and natural environments.  Clearly, the partners of the Intermountain West Joint Venture play a critical role in maintaining a world where shorebirds thrive.



Read more articles in the Fall 2013 issue of the Conservation Roundup: 

Blanca Wetlands: The Importance of Science-based Management When Resources Run Dry

By Hannah J. Ryan, IWJV Communications Specialist 

Partners Persevere for Rio Grande Despite Colossal Drought

By Alan Hamilton

Pond It and Plug It: Restoring Wet Meadows in Northern California

By Jim Stutzman, IWJV Habitat Delivery Specialist

Farm Bill Conservation Programs Take Root in the Palouse

By Kurt Merg, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and Don Larsen, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife