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An ecological disaster that’s within our grasp to reverse

Shorebirds that migrate through the Northeast are in serious decline. It’s not too late to save them.

An adult piping plover pulls a worm from the mud and sand at low tide on Revere Beach.Wilson, Mark Globe Staff

High tide had come to Wellfleet Bay, on Cape Cod’s inner shore. It was mid-May, the peak of spring bird migration, and while the upland forests were ringing with the songs of newly arrived orioles and warblers, my attention was glued to the salt marshes and sandy beaches, where some truly epic migrants were resting on their hemispheric journeys.

These were shorebirds of nearly a dozen species — least sandpipers not much larger than sparrows, greater yellowlegs that used their needle-slim bills to pluck insects from the surface. On a carpet of vivid green cordgrass, 15 or 20 black-bellied plovers, dapper in their silver-and-ebony breeding plumage, rested quietly though attentively, watching the sky for a falcon or other threat. Some of the plovers likely came from the coast of Brazil or Argentina, and, like the other shorebirds along the Wellfleet coast — dunlins and semipalmated sandpipers, sanderlings and ruddy turnstones — they were pausing only briefly on a migration to the northernmost reaches of the Canadian Arctic to nest.


Scientists have raised increasing alarms about the decline in birds overall, but no group exemplifies the dangers facing migratory birds better than shorebirds. Despite their mastery of distance and physical challenge, they are among the most imperiled groups of birds in the world.

Now an article published in the May 2023 issue of the journal Ornithological Applications and written by many of the leading shorebird researchers, agencies, and institutions in North America makes clear that the threat to shorebirds is only intensifying. Led by the Massachusetts-based environmental nonprofit Manomet, with Environment and Climate Change Canada, the analysis was based on 40 years of monitoring across the Lower 48 and southern Canada.

A white-rumped sandpiper pauses in its foraging in Chatham. The sandpiper migrates through New England en route to the high Arctic, where it nests. The nonprofit Manomet is tracking the serious declines of North American shorebirds and has been developing a recovery plan for each species. Wilson, Mark Globe Staff

As Sabrina Shankman reported recently in the Globe, the scientists found that of 28 North American shorebird species surveyed, more than half have lost at least 50 percent of their population since 1980. For some, the loss is close to 70 percent. And the rate of decline appears to be accelerating. The threats are many: habitat loss and rising sea levels; unsustainable hunting, both legal and illegal, in Latin America and the Caribbean; and even competition on the Arctic nesting grounds from exploding snow goose populations, which benefit from a warming climate and an abundance of winter food on US farmland. All of these pressures seem to be disproportionately affecting shorebird populations that migrate along the Atlantic coast.


Time is desperately short, and most of the species surveyed for this study likely already qualify, based on the speed and severity of their decline, as threatened or endangered under criteria like those of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. But most species, at least for the moment, still number in the hundreds of thousands. We have a narrowing window of opportunity to act.

We also have a successful model to follow. In 2008, despite more than a decade of somewhat scattershot efforts, the numbers of American oystercatchers were continuing to drop. These large black-and-white shorebirds nest on Atlantic and Gulf Coast beaches and have beaks that look like bright orange table knives. Realizing that more ad hoc approaches had failed, conservationists launched the American Oystercatcher Recovery Initiative, a coordinated effort backed by $1 million a year over 10 years in funding received from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and its partners. Collaborative and targeted research identified the greatest threats to the species, mainly the loss of nests to predators and human disturbance. Mitigation strategies were put in place up and down the oystercatcher’s range. The result: A 23 percent increase in oystercatcher numbers in just 10 years, after decades of loss.


An American oystercatcher. The species, long in decline, has rebounded thanks to an ambitious decade-long initiative.Harry Collins -

The oystercatcher initiative shows we know how to rebuild shorebird populations, but we must bring greater resources to bear. The Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative, a 2015 business plan developed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in coordination with NFWF and other partners, is built on the successful oystercatcher model, but it has a 10-year budget of $90 million to recover populations of 15 species, not just one, and the federal appropriation to NFWF has been only a small fraction of that amount. Significantly more funding is needed, and quickly.

If we seek a visionary model of fiscal leadership to follow, we should consider what the Asian Development Bank has done: In 2021, it committed to raising $3 billion over the next decade to both rebuild shorebird populations and strengthen human communities through wetland conservation across the massive East Asia-Australasian Flyway, along which some 50 million waterbirds, including millions of shorebirds, migrate.

The fates of shorebirds and humans are interlocked. As Americans confront the increasing damage wrought by rising seas and intensifying storms, we should embrace measures that protect and restore shorebird habitat along our coasts because they also provide resiliency and serve as protective buffers to human communities just inland. For shorebirds and the humans who share their coastal world, time is running out. A path forward is clear.


Scott Weidensaul is a bird migration researcher and the author of 30 books, including the 2021 bestseller “A World on the Wing.” He lives in New Hampshire.