Shorebirds are a diverse group of waterbirds that include plovers, stilts, avocets and sandpipers. Thirty-nine shorebird species have been documented in Missouri (six plovers, one stilt, one avocet, 31 sandpipers), but only 17 are considered common. Although they are relatively small birds, shorebirds are some of the longest distance migrants in the world. Many species nest in the arctic and spend the non-breeding season in Central and South America. A few species nest locally (killdeer, spotted sandpiper), however most shorebird species seen in Missouri occur during migration. In Missouri, peak shorebird spring migration occurs during three to four weeks in April or May, but some shorebirds may be seen from mid-March to early June. The exact timing depends on weather conditions of each year. Fall migration generally lasts from mid-July into October with the peak occurring in August and September.
Shorebirds typically utilize mudflats and shallow water. Most species use water depths less than 4 inches. Plovers (including the frequently seen killdeer) and some sandpipers (such as the spotted sandpiper) tend to use drier habitats, but most sandpiper species use saturated mudflats or shallowly flooded habitats. In addition, most shorebirds prefer open or sparsely vegetated sites. There are a few shorebirds, though, such as the common snipe, which utilize densely vegetated sites. In addition, shorebirds may often be observed in sites that have dense vegetation interspersed with open areas. Shorebirds generally respond to declining water levels, which continually expose new invertebrate resources.
Accessible but hard to ID
Because shorebirds prefer open habitats and most do not readily flush, they are often accessible for viewing. However, these birds are small and cryptic, and sometimes blend in with their muddy habitats. Many people are overwhelmed by shorebird identification because most species are grayish or brownish and appear superficially very similar. However, many species have distinctive physical or behavioral characteristics that can be learned with practice. Good viewing conditions facilitate identification. In particular, birds are most easily viewed when the light is behind the viewer, emphasizing plumage, leg and bill colors. Learning to identify this challenging group can be very rewarding. Just remember that even the best birders cannot identify all shorebirds they come across!
Northwest is your best bet
The amount of habitat available in Missouri is determined primarily by weather. More specifically, if it rains proper amounts at the proper time, habitat is abundant. If it doesn't rain, then habitat is limited to federal and state refuges that manage for shorebirds. There are several refuges and conservation areas in northwest Missouri that attract shorebirds seasonally. Browse the Missouri Conservation Area Atlas, listed below.