Many different types of birds can be found on beach shores: gulls, waterfowl, terns and raptors, but when birders use the term “shorebirds” they are referring to specific types of birds that are distinct in body shape and behavior. There are several types of shorebirds that can occupy beaches, estuaries, marshes and other shores, and understanding the subtle differences between each type can help you learn to identify them more easily.
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Shorebirds come in many shapes and sizes, but all of them share certain characteristics, including a preference for wet habitats and shorelines, physically round heads and very useful bills to probe for food in the sand, gravel and water. The term shorebird covers several related bird families that are part of this distinct group.
Avocets are a group of tall, large wading shorebirds with very thin, sharply upturned bills. There are four species of avocet, including the black and white pied avocet. The American avocet is the only one found in North America.
Oystercatchers are stocky, shorter shorebirds with long, thick bills. The plumage of most oystercatchers is similar and the best way to identify these birds is by range.
These small shorebirds are compact with short necks and small, straight bills. Their nervous behavior of short sprints and abrupt stops above the waterline is a strong clue to their identity.
The most diverse category of shorebirds is the sandpipers. Sizes and colorations range greatly, but all of these birds have sensitive bills they use to probe through the sand when feeding. While there are many species that include “sandpiper” in the name, other species such as turnstones, phalaropes, yellowlegs, snipes and dowitchers are also sandpipers.
Aptly named, these shorebirds have long, thin legs that resemble stilts. Similar to avocets, these birds can be identified by their straight bills and bold markings.