Shorebird Season

Long-billed Dowitcher

By Labour Day weekend shorebird migration is well underway and some of the less common species start to arrive in our region. While the Eagleson storm water ponds are a great spot to find common species such as both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Sandpipers, the mudflats of the Ottawa River attract a variety of other birds, especially those that prefer tidal beaches and rushing water. Unfortunately, the water level of the Ottawa River depends not just the amount of rainfall we receive during the summer, but also the actions of the dam further upstream. We have received little rainfall this summer, as in most of our summers recently, however, this year the dam gates have remained shut so that the falling water levels have created the mudflats necessary to attract flocks of shorebirds. It has been great to see the sandbars emerge on the river on my daily bus commute along the Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway, and I was thrilled to see the mudflats developing at Andrew Haydon Park in recent weeks. This past weekend I went looking for shorebirds early in the morning, and the huge exposed muddy beach at Ottawa Beach was the best I’ve seen it in years. As long as the dam gates remain closed, this part of the Ottawa River shoreline will remain the best spot for viewing hard-to-find shorebird species throughout the fall given its accessibility.

I started my search for shorebirds at an unlikely spot, the small bay to the west of Dick Bell Park. I’d seen the exposed rocky mudflats emerge over the past few weeks and thought it was worth a quick stop. When I noticed a flock of shorebirds on the far side – mostly yellowlegs – I parked the car and grabbed my scope. I left the camera in the car as they were too far to photograph.

A scan through my scope revealed a dowitcher among the flock, using its long bill to probe the muddy bottom with its characteristic up-and-down “sewing machine” motion. That was the best bird of the flock, which consisted of four Semipalmated Plovers, one Killdeer, one Spotted Sandpiper, one Greater Yellowlegs, and a host of Lesser Yellowlegs – at least a dozen altogether, though their quick movements made counting difficult. Then something startled them and a small portion of the flock started flying toward me – and landed in the mudflats directly beneath the road! Unfortunately the dowitcher wasn’t with them, as I was hoping for a closer view in order to determine whether it was a Long-billed or Short-billed Dowitcher, but a small, pale, active shorebird quickly caught my attention. It had a long, dark needle-like bill and rushed through the water while holding its body horizontally, quickly darting in one direction before abruptly turning in another. I recognized it as a phalarope, but it has been so long since I’ve seen one that I couldn’t remember how to distinguish the three species in their fall (non-breeding or juvenal) plumage. I checked a couple of birding apps on my iPhone (I have Audubon, Sibley, and iBird Canada), and as the bird lacked a large dark patch behind the eye I tentatively identified it as a Wilson’s Phalarope! At that point I regretted my decision not to bring the camera and had to run back to the car and get it!

Wilson’s Phalarope with Lesser Yellowlegs

Of the three phalarope species, Red-necked Phalarope is the one most commonly seen in eastern Ontario during fall migration. Wilson’s Phalaropes are less common, and Red Phalaropes are rarer still. Both the Red and the Red-necked Phalarope breed in the Arctic, but whereas the Red-necked Phalarope migrates over the continent, particularly the western half, stopping in at various wetlands on its way south, the Red Phalarope is more likely to migrate along the coasts. The Wilson’s Phalarope breeds much further south than the other two, in marshes, wetlands, upland shrubby areas and even roadside ditches in the prairies below the 60th parallel (the latitude that separates the northern border of the western provinces from the territories). The bulk of its breeding range occurs in the western half of the continent, with smaller areas occurring around the Great Lakes. It was considered a rare vagrant in Ontario until the 1970s when it started being seen more regularly. Breeding was confirmed in the 1980s in Amherst Island and in Russell in Eastern Ontario. Since then it has nested sporadically in the eastern sewage lagoons, though it rarely stays into September or shows up along the Ottawa River or in places like the Eagleson Ponds.

Wilson’s Phalarope

This was now the best bird of the day. I have only seen two Wilson’s Phalaropes previously in Ottawa, both males – my life bird at the Casselman Sewage Lagoons in July 2007, and another bird in a wet area along March Valley Road in May 2008. I have also seen them in southern Ontario, notably at the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons in May 2013 and at Hillman Marsh in May 2015.

From there I drove over to Andrew Haydon Park to check out the mudflats along the western creek. There were very few shorebirds here, but five Great Egrets clustered together in the bay were great to see (a sixth one was in a tree above the shore of Dick Bell Park), as was a pair of Caspian Terns roosting on the sand! One was a crisp gray and white adult, while the other had the full black cap of an adult and dark streaks on the gray feathers of its back. This was the first juvenile I’ve seen, and I thought it was very striking. Then the sixth Great Egret flew down from the trees, and it must have landed too close to the terns for the adult Caspian Tern immediately began to chase it.

Caspian Tern

My last stop of the morning was Ottawa Beach (aka Andrew Haydon east) which has historically hosted some great birds, including Sabine’s Gull, Parasitic Jaeger, Hudsonian Godwit, and Red-necked Phalarope. There I found a couple of photographers and birders watching two of my favourite shorebird species: Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone. Two turnstones and three Sanderlings were scurrying along the water’s edge with two Semipalmated Plovers, two Least Sandpipers, and one Semipalmated Sandpiper. They ignored the people taking their photos from only ten feet away as they walked along the shoreline, probing the mud for food. The Semipalmated Plover looks like a miniature version of a Killdeer, with only one black neckband and yellow-orange legs.

Semipalmated Plover

Ruddy Turnstones are not as common along the Ottawa River as the other species, but they are more likely to show up here than in inland ponds which is ironic as I had seen my last one at the storm water ponds on Eagleson in June 2019. They were quite common in Cozumel when I visited in April 2016, foraging along the quiet shore as well as the busy ferry docks.

Ruddy Turnstone

Adults in breeding plumage have a bright rusty-red back marked with black stripes, a dense black chest, and a white head with black straps circling the face. They also have the same bright orange legs as juveniles and non-breeding adults, making them easy to pick out among other species. I am guessing that these are juveniles based on the fresh, scalloped appearance of the back feathers.

Ruddy Turnstone

As its name suggests, the Ruddy Turnstone forages for food by flipping over rocks and seaweed with its sharp, stout bill. There were no rocks in the vicinity, but we enjoyed watching the pair sift through the clumps of vegetation that had formed along the shore.

Ruddy Turnstone

The Sanderling has a different foraging strategy: it runs after waves looking for small invertebrates left stranded by the receding water. They use their bill to probe the wet sand for small crabs, amphipods, worms, mollusks, and other small invertebrates, or skim food from the surface of shallow pools.


Of the three Sanderlings, two were juveniles and one was an adult molting into non-breeding plumage. Juvenile Sanderlings have checkered markings on their back in shades of brown, white, and pale bluish-gray. Non-breeding adults are white below and pearly gray above, with no checkering, making them the palest shorebird in our region. Their scientific name, Calidris alba, refers to their pale plumage – in Latin, alba means “white”.


Interestingly, I’ve never seen a Sanderling in breeding plumage; they are ruddy brown above and white below, with an entirely brown head and the same black bill and black legs. The only times I’ve seen them in the spring – in Cozumel in April 2016 and at Point Pelee in May 2009 – they have been primarily in non-breeding plumage with only some molting starting to take place. I don’t know if I’d even be able to identify a breeding plumage Sanderling if I saw one by itself in the high summer!


The next day I started my walk at the Eagleson ponds, but only the usual shorebirds were present: Spotted Sandpipers, Killdeer, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and four Least Sandpipers on a rock in the central pond. One of the four Greater Yellowlegs was standing quite close to the shore, and I was able to get some photos. I like this one because it shows its stubby tail – something you don’t normally see as the wings are almost always folded over top of it.

Greater Yellowlegs

I managed to find two warblers as well, a single Yellow Warbler and a female or immature Blackburnian Warbler. After that I tried my luck at Sarsaparilla Trail, where I found the boardwalk fenced off due to the broken railings, and Mud Lake, where I found only one warbler species – an American Redstart behind the ridge. Still thirsting for migrants, I decided to return to Ottawa Beach where I ran into Dave Moore returning from the mudflats. He advised that the Sanderlings were still there, along with a Pectoral Sandpiper and a Long-billed Dowitcher, and that the Ruddy Turnstones were gone. He noted that they were very close to the shore, so I left my scope in the car.

I looked for the crowd of photographers and found only six or eight people near the mouth of Graham Creek. The five Sanderlings were clumped together on a tiny island of matted vegetation just beyond the reach of my camera, but to my delight the Long-billed Dowitcher was much closer. The Pectoral Sandpiper was hiding on another small island with only its head poking above a small hill.

This dowitcher is most likely the same bird I saw at Dick Bell Park yesterday, as it was been moving around the Ottawa River for a few days now – after leaving Dick Bell Park it was later seen with the Wilson’s Phalarope on the beach at the end of Scrivens Street.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Dowitchers can be difficult to identify, since – despite the name – there is not much of a difference in the bill length. While there is much overlap in bill size and bill shape, Short-billed Dowitchers generally have shorter, thicker bills with a blunt tip and a downward kink near the end, while Long-billed Dowitchers have longer, thinner bills with a fine tip with a very subtle downward arch in the outer half.

Shape and plumage – particularly in juvenile birds – plays a much more important part in differentiating the two dowitchers. When seen together, the Short-billed Dowitcher is slightly smaller and slimmer than the Long-billed Dowitcher, with a flatter back when feeding. Both are fairly chunky, attenuated birds, but when feeding the Long-billed Dowitcher has a humped back and rounded belly, making it look as though it has swallowed a grapefruit. In addition, juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers are usually more colourful than juvenile Long-billed Dowitchers. This bird had plain, dark brown wing feathers with pale edging above the tail. In contrast, the same feathers of the Short-billed Dowitcher (called tertials) have pale spots in the center as well as the pale edging. This is the most reliable way of telling juveniles of the two species apart if they aren’t calling.

Long-billed Dowitcher

In addition to the dowitcher and Sanderlings, at least eight Least Sandpipers, a similar number of Semipalmated Plovers, five Killdeer, one Greater Yellowlegs, and over a dozen Lesser Yellowlegs were present in the mouth of the creek. I caught this tiny Least Sandpiper marching by as it hunted for food.

Least Sandpiper

I heard a few shorebirds calling and turned in time to see two more Pectoral Sandpipers fly in. It was only then that the original Pectoral Sandpiper came out and the three began feeding close to the shore. I don’t think they were happy to see each other as they occasionally squabbled and took runs at each other.

Pectoral Sandpiper

The Pectoral Sandpiper resembles an over-sized Least Sandpiper, right down to the yellow legs. However, note the reddish base of the bill, the longer body shape, the dense streaking on the upper breast that ends abruptly at the belly, and white lines running down the back.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Sorting through large flocks of shorebirds on the beach or mudflats is one of my favourite activities as a birder. Although sometimes difficult to ID to species, particularly for beginners and non-birders who think they all look the same, shorebirds like to feed out in the open and don’t dart behind leaves or fly off to distant trees the way songbirds do. In fact many species are apt to ignore humans and walk right in front of them if they choose a spot reasonably close to the shore and wait for them to approach! It’s thus easy to keep them in view, get good looks at them from various angles, and watch how they feed. For beginners it’s best to start off by learning the common species first, then paying attention for anything different that shows up. Their interactions with each other are fascinating to watch, and if a falcon or other raptor happens to fly within view, the shorebirds will let you know by quickly flying off and wheeling over the water in a loose flock until they deem it safe to return.

I was thrilled to see so many species at my two days along the Ottawa River, and can’t wait to see what shows up next!


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