Spring is a great time to observe nesting shorebirds. On Massachusetts beaches, shorebird nesting lasts from 6 to 8 weeks, beginning in mid-April and extending through late July. After hatching, shorebirds linger on coastal beaches so chicks can learn to find food and fly. Several species of shorebirds are listed as Endangered or Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, as well as under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, which also designates Species of Special Concern (species in danger of becoming Threatened, species that have not fully recovered from a past decline, or species that are of an essential ecological position that any decline could adversely affect other species). Beachgoers can help to safeguard shorebird numbers by knowing where they nest and how to avoid disrupting mating season success. The following information describes Threatened and Endangered Shorebirds in Massachusetts, What Beachgoers Can Do to Protect Shorebirds, What Beach Drivers Can Do to Protect Shorebirds, Shorebird Protection and Monitoring, Bird Watching at the Shore, and Birding Clubs and Other Web Resources.

Threatened and Endangered Shorebirds in Massachusetts

Five species of shorebirds are considered threatened or endangered in Massachusetts—the Roseate Tern, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Least Tern, and Piping Plover.

Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii) - Listed as endangered under both federal and state law, the Roseate Tern prefers to nest in mixed colonies with Common and Arctic terns on Massachusetts offshore islands and barrier beaches. In recent years, competition from gulls has forced the mixed flocks to nest inshore. While the Roseate competes with the other terns for food (small fish) and nesting sites, they benefit from aggressive colony/site defense behavior. All three tern species are medium-sized. The Roseate has a light gray back and wings, long outer tail feathers, and at the beginning of the breeding season, a black bill, which becomes pink at the base as the season progresses. Medium-sized tern species tend to hide their nests under shallow protective cover. Chicks fledge between 25 and 28 days, and within a week, leave the nest site to find their own hiding spots. They may leave the colony with their parents a few days later. For more information on Roseate Terns, see:

  • The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) species profile, which contains detailed information on the Roseate Tern's federal status.
  • The Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NHESP) Roseate Tern fact sheet pdf format of Roseate Tern
, which contains specific information on this species in Massachusetts.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Roseate Tern page for identification tips and other information.
  • The USGS Roseate Tern fact sheet for additional information on U.S. populations.
  • The Mangoverde World Bird Guide Roseate Tern page for photographs and recorded calls for this species.

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) - The Common Tern is a Species of Special Concern in Massachusetts. Both the Common Tern and Arctic Tern (discussed below) are similar in size to the Roseate Tern and also exhibit similar nesting characteristics. During mating season, the Common Tern has an all-red bill and lighter underparts. For more information, see:

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) - Also a Species of Special Concern in Massachusetts, the Arctic Tern is similar to the Common Tern but has a shorter bill and legs and longer tail. During mating, the Arctic Tern also has an all-red bill, but underparts are darker gray. These sources have additional information:

Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) - Another Species of Special Concern in Massachusetts, the Least Tern ranges from southern Maine to Florida. These terns nest in the same habitat as Piping Plovers and are often found near them. They are small, black-and-white seabirds that crouch in the sand and along vehicle ruts, which makes them particularly vulnerable to off-road vehicles. Juveniles fledge in 22 days, after which they gather in pre-migratory flocks. For more information, see:

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) - Designated as both a federal and state Threatened species, the Piping Plover is a small, sand-colored bird that nests on coastal beaches from Newfoundland to South Carolina. Its color and habit of running then stopping short and standing still are efficient camouflage. Though normally a protection, this camouflage makes Piping Plovers vulnerable to being accidentally crushed by beach drivers or disturbed by beachgoers, causing nests and chicks to be abandoned. Male Piping Plovers establish their territories and court females and pairs will re-nest until producing a successful brood. Chicks move around their nests within hours of hatching, and fledge after 30 days. Piping Plovers feed on marine worms, crustaceans, and insects. See:

What Beachgoers Can Do to Protect Shorebirds

Shorebird nesting areas are frequented by beachgoers, who may inadvertently crush eggs, cause nests to be abandoned, or displace chicks. Also, dogs and activities such as kite flying have a significant effect on nesting populations. To minimize human impacts and help shorebirds to hatch and fledge chicks successfully, many organizations sponsor shorebird protection and monitoring programs to safeguard threatened populations. By following posted restrictions and these simple guidelines, beachgoers can also help:

  • Be sure to stay out of wildlife protection areas.
  • Do not walk on erosion-sensitive sand dunes.
  • Be vigilant about keeping dogs and other pets on leashes.
  • Take away all garbage and food, which can attract shorebird predators.
  • Be aware of where you walk and let fellow beachgoers know where you have sighted a nest.
  • See the MassWildlife wildlife rehabilitation web page for information on what to do if you find an injured bird.

What Beach Drivers Can Do to Protect Shorebirds

Because many shorebird species hide in vehicle tracks, off-road vehicles can easily run over these birds. Off-road vehicles should therefore stay outside of delineated shorebird habitat, which is designated in May of each year and marked by postings or fencing. Beach management authorities have specific information and rules for each beach. See these sources for additional information:

Shorebird Protection Monitoring

Both the federal and state laws require that shorebirds be protected, especially during the mating season. A productive season is important to maintaining, and ideally increasing, their numbers. The following resources include additional information:

Bird Watching at the Shore

The Commonwealth's long shoreline offers many sites to observe nesting shorebirds. These organizations list beaches and shorebird hot spots and offer opportunities for shorebird observation:

Birding Clubs and Other Web Resources

If you are interested in learning more about birding in Massachusetts, check out the following websites for resources to help get you started.

  • Bird Observer's Massbird.org website includes links to bird clubs and places to bird, along with postings on bird sightings in Massachusetts, complete with photos.
  • Massachusetts Bird News by Date is an American Birding Association site where birders post sighting information on rare birds.
  • Mass Audubon E-Bird, a collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a free, internet-based program allowing birders from around the country to record and share bird observations. Mass Audubon also has a Bird Sightings page.
  • The Fatbirder Birding...Massachusetts web page tells about the history of birding in Massachusetts.