Shorebirds 101: What to Look for When You Hit the Water

The diversity of shorebirds is stunning, but it can also be overwhelming. Here are four staple groups to get you started.


Shorebirds are an amazing collection of beaks and legs, molts and rumps, quirks and feats. They’re among the most incredible athletes in nature, with some making multi-day, non-stop flights to reach their wintering or breeding areas. While they’re often considered brownish and dull, certain species are strikingly colorful for a few summer months. If you’re lucky enough to visit the Arctic—where many of them breed—you may also find them performing complex aerial displays and songs. It contrasts their quiet, demure behavior on the North American mudflats at other seasons. But it’s at those other times that they gather in spectacular numbers, sometimes in the tens of thousands, creating an exceptional spectacle for birders to take in.

Yet for newer birders (and a handful of experts), learning shorebirds can feel absurd. Part of the problem is that there are dozens of North American species: up to 57 regulars, with nearly 40 in the sandpiper family alone. Some are truly similar to each other (ahem, yellowlegs); others are confusing due to their various plumages over different ages and seasons. To tackle the shorebirds, you need to first winnow them down to a group. Once you have a smaller set of species, the identification challenges become a bit clearer.

Here are four categories to help make shorebirds more manageable (and enjoyable).

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