Shorebirds a Spring Highlight in ND

Leier Doug
Doug Leier

By Doug Leier, NDG&F Dept.

North Dakota’s prairie potholes get a lot justifiable credit for their role in helping sustain the continent’s waterfowl populations.

What we don’t often hear about is the equally important role that prairie wetlands play in the life cycle of more than 30 shorebird species that either pass through in spring and fall, or migrate into North Dakota to spend spring and summer here, nesting and raising young.

“Because we are blessed with so many lakes, permanent wetlands, temporary wetlands, or simply shallow water pooled in farm fields, North Dakota plays an important role as stopover habitat, places for the birds to wade in the shallows, rest and feed during the migration,” Sandra Johnson, North Dakota Game and Fish Department conservation biologist said in the May 2017 issue of North Dakota OUTDOORS magazine. “These waters are so full of invertebrates and other foods that the birds are able to gorge themselves before moving on.”

The phalarope is one of the 36 shorebird species that can be seen in or migrating through North Dakota (NDG&F Photo)

In fact, of the 50 or so shorebird species that migrate through all of North America in spring, roughly 36 have ties to North Dakota.

Here are some other facts about shorebirds and their relation to North Dakota’s wetland habitats.

  • Of the three dozen or so species that touch down at some point in North Dakota, about 12 stay in the state to court, breed, build nests and raise young.


  • The 12 shorebirds known to nest in North Dakota in spring include the piping plover, killdeer, black-necked stilt, American avocet, willet, spotted sandpiper, upland sandpiper, marbled godwit, long-billed curlew, Wilson’s snipe, American woodcock and Wilson’s phalarope. Outside of the killdeer, how many of these would you recognize?


  • Most shorebirds have much longer migrations than do ducks and geese. Some winter in Central and South America and may travel more than 8,000 miles from wintering to breeding grounds in the Arctic. The short distance migrants travel only about 3,000 miles. Depending on the weather and other hurdles shorebirds encounter en route to North Dakota and beyond, most of the birds arrive here sometime in late April to late May.


  • Like many birds in nature, most shorebird males are more colorful than the females during the spring mating and courtship ritual. But for Wilson’s phalaropes, those roles are reversed. Female phalaropes are bigger than the males. The females are also brightly colored. This role reversal continues into courtship and nest initiation. Male phalaropes build the nests, incubate the eggs and raise the young after the eggs hatch.


  • Eight shorebirds species are included on the Game and Fish Department’s list of Species of Conservation Priority. Seven of these nest in North Dakota and include the long-billed curlew, marbled godwit, Wilson’s phalarope, American avocet, piping plover, willet, upland sandpiper. The rufa red knot nests in the Arctic and is perhaps the migration champion, traveling more than 9,300 miles from wintering to breeding grounds.


  • The rufa red knot and piping plover are both on the list of federally threatened species, in addition to their designation as North Dakota conservation priority species.


  • The long-billed curlew is the largest shorebird in North America, measuring 26 inches from tail to tip of its long, down-curved, bill. Unlike most of the other shorebirds that migrate through or nest in North Dakota’s Prairie Pothole Region, the curlew is primarily a bird of the southwest, nesting in shortgrass prairie often some distance from water. Some of the sandpiper species are not much larger than a good-sized sparrow.

Now is a good time to look for shorebirds large and small along the edges of wetlands and lakes as they probe the shallow water and adjacent mud for their daily meals.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s