Lisa Schibley, Liana DiNunzio
One, two, three…go and count those shorebirds! That race-like tenor of excitement buzzed through many of us as we launched the Manomet’s first annual Massachusetts Shorebird Blitz. The blitz, organized by Manomet’s Cape Cod Shorebird Biologist Liana DiNunzio, Conservation Biologist Alan Kneidel, and North America ISS Coordinator Lisa Schibley, took place this past August 5-14 as a coordinated effort to survey key shorebird stopover sites throughout coastal Massachusetts during peak southbound migration. We won’t hold you in suspense: the results are impressive. During the blitz, 89 staff and volunteer observers counted shorebirds at 115 sites from Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newbury to Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge on Cape Cod, from Provincetown’s Race Point to Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary in Westport, as well as sites on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Drumroll, please: thanks to new and veteran volunteer shorebird enthusiasts, we counted over 73,000 shorebirds of 29 species!
Some of you might be familiar with a “BioBlitz,” an intense effort to catalog as many species within a designated location and time period. We wanted to take that concept one step beyond with the Shorebird Blitz, and increase the scientific value of the survey by asking our contributors to follow a few extra guidelines. For most sites, blitz surveys were conducted at high tide when feeding areas like mudflats and wetlands were inaccessible – and shorebirds were nestled on their high tide roosts and able to be counted more accurately. For sites nearby to each other, we encouraged surveys to be conducted on the exact same day and tide cycle, to avoid double counting birds flying between sites. The concept for this blitz stemmed from the Georgia Mid-winter Waterbird Census, an annual, one-day, shorebird survey that is in its 35th year in Georgia. This survey, coordinated by Manomet staff and partners, was designed to have a coordinated high tide roost survey on the entire 100 miles of Georgia coastal habitats in one day.
We chose early August to coincide with the first large pulse of southward moving shorebirds. The goal was to get a snapshot of the number of shorebirds using our coastline during peak southbound migration, and to identify significant stopover locations. While some species such as Sanderling and Dunlin peak later in the season, Semipalmated Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Short-billed Dowitcher all have their highest numbers during this early window.
BLITZ BY THE NUMBERS
There were many highlights in both quality and quantity of shorebirds. We had seven species that were spotted at only one site: an American Golden-Plover at the Powder Hole on Monomoy; a Marbled Godwit at the Forest Beach and Conservation Lands in Chatham; a Stilt Sandpiper on Plum Island in Newburyport; an Upland Sandpiper at Stauffer’s Puddle in Sandwich; a Western Sandpiper at Third Cliff in Scituate; and a Wilson’s Phalarope at Nauset Marsh. (Congrats if you were a finder of some of these more unusual species!)
Notable high counts included 630 Black-bellied Plovers and 3,760 Semipalmated Plovers on Sandy Neck in West Barnstable; 60 Greater Yellowlegs and 45 Lesser Yellowlegs at the First Landing Park in Provincetown; 41 Piping Plovers on Crane Beach in Ipswich; 6,850 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 420 Red Knots, and 290 Ruddy Turnstones on Monomoy; 96 Least Sandpipers at Ellisville State Park in Plymouth; four Solitary Sandpipers on Sesachacha Pond in Nantucket; 11 Spotted Sandpipers at Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge on Martha’s Vineyard; 51 Whimbrel on Morris Island in Chatham; and 121 Willets on Saquish Neck in Duxbury.
FROM MARSHES TO HARBORS
The blitz counts around the Great Marsh north of Boston were part of a shorebird survey that partners have been undertaking in that area for years. Rather than asking volunteers to conduct two different counts, one of our partners, The Trustees, agreed we could incorporate the Great Marsh surveys on August 14 into our blitz data. The Trustees have been surveying migratory shorebirds at Crane Beach since the 1990s, but this year marked the largest collaborative effort across the Great Marsh ecosystem to conduct simultaneous surveys with partner organizations. Sites included barrier beach systems like Plum Island and Crane Beach, as well as marsh areas in Salisbury, Rowley, Newbury, Ipswich, and Essex Bay. Sites were chosen by where the highest number of birds are typically seen. During the Great Marsh survey, partners and volunteers counted a total of 8,959 shorebirds of 22 different species.
And, let’s not forget that we find shorebirds in cities, too. Boston Harbor was another survey area with enthusiastic coverage. Coordinated by Sebastian Jones and Soheil Zendeh, the Metro Boston Shorebird Group selected the Wednesday evening high tide for their simultaneous coverage. Sixteen volunteers submitted checklists from fifteen locations. This data is especially valuable because the Boston Harbor Take a Second Look (TASL) survey project, coordinated by Soheil Zendeh, has covered many of the same beaches and salt marshes periodically from 1980 through 1998. The coverage during that period was also done in blitz style, and produced another rich data set with which Manomet can compare our own numbers.
WHY THE DATA MATTERS
The importance of this effort and the ISS in general is particularly relevant based on the recent Paul Smith et al. paper that came out in 2022 highlighting the steep declining trends of shorebirds, the analysis of which was based on ISS data. The data and information collected both in the past, and from this most recent survey, has already inspired a number of shorebird research questions, including: 1) To what extent should the Boston Harbor beaches’ wrack lines be kept intact to benefit shorebirds; and, 2) Are the shorebirds using the Barnstable Harbor flats part of the Monomoy population or independent? As we dig deeper into the data, additional topics of future interest could include investigating different stopover strategies and how different species associate with each other during migration. Next year, we’ll do it all again, and incorporate many lessons learned! There are already several ideas percolating around the virtual water cooler on how to use the blitz approach for both different seasons and more species-specific surveys. Manomet is always willing to share what we know: if you live in an important shorebird region and are interested in organizing a similar shorebird blitz using ISS contributors and other volunteers, please reach out for guidance and support.
We are extremely grateful to all of the partners and participants who helped make Manomet’s first annual Massachusetts Shorebird Blitz possible. Partner organizations include: United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, National Park Service/Cape Cod National Seashore, The Trustees, Metro Boston Shorebird Group, BiodiversityWorks, Mass Audubon, Duxbury Beach Reservation, Nantucket Land Bank, Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Nasketucket Bird Club, UMass Field Station, the Town of Orleans, Monomoy Bird Observatory, MassWildlife, South Shore Bird Club, Cape Cod Bird Club, and Paskamansett Bird Club.
There is always more to explore! Learn about Manomet’s International Shorebird Survey here.