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.
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, 291 KB), 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 Roseate Tern page from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America for information on distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status, and conservation.
- 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:
- The NHESP Common Tern fact sheet (PDF, 269 KB) for details on this species in Massachusetts.
- The USGS Common Tern page for identification tips and other information.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America Common Tern page for information on distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status, and conservation.
- The Mangoverde World Bird Guide Common Tern page for photographs and recordings of this species.
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:
- The NHESP Arctic Tern fact sheet (PDF, 269 KB) provides information on this species in Massachusetts.
- The USGS Arctic Tern page has identification tips and other information.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America Arctic Tern page provides information on distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status, and conservation.
- The Mangoverde World Bird Guide Arctic Tern page has photographs and recordings.
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:
- The NHESP Least Tern fact sheet (PDF, 269 KB) for details on this species in Massachusetts.
- The USGS Least Tern page for identification tips and other information.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America Least Tern page for information on distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status, and conservation.
- The Mangoverde World Bird Guide Least Tern page for a photograph of Least Tern juveniles.
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:
- The USFWS Piping Plover Atlantic Coast Population website for links to recreational management guidelines, information on how to report sightings, and references.
- The USFWS Piping Plover species profile for detailed information on its federal status.
- The USFWS revised species recovery plan for in-depth information on the Atlantic Coast population.
- The NHESP Piping Plover fact sheet (PDF, 219 KB) for details on this species in Massachusetts.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America Piping Plover page for information regarding distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status, and conservation.
- The Mangoverde World Bird Guide Piping Plover page for photographs and recordings.
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:
- The Cape Cod National Seashore Oversand Beach Driving page has details on off-road vehicle permitting.
- The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation Off-Road Vehicles web page has information on off-road vehicles permitting and where to ride.
- The Massachusetts Environmental Police Boat and Recreation Vehicle Safety Bureau has specifics on training courses and legal requirements in the Commonwealth.
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:
- The USFWS Northeast Region Ecological Services website has information on the federal Endangered Species Act, listed species, and action plans.
- The NHESP website includes regulatory information, details on threatened and endangered species, and protection strategies.
- Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (PRISM) describes this shorebird migration survey effort for East Coast states.
- The Massachusetts Piping Plover & Tern on-line data entry system can be used to report sightings of these species.
Birdwatching 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:
- The Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management's Coastal Trails of Massachusetts web page includes information about coastal walking trails along the more than 1,500 miles of Massachusetts coastline.
- The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation's Massachusetts State Parks web page includes information on coastal facilities.
- The Boston Harbor Islands website includes information on visiting the islands, where shorebirds can be found in large numbers on the mudflats and in salt marshes.
- The Shorebird Hotspots in Greater Boston web page gives specific information on birding locations around Boston Harbor.
- The Mass Audubon Society Wildlife Sanctuaries web page gives an online map and listing of their sanctuaries around the state.
- The Trustees of Reservations website has information on Massachusetts lands protected for wildlife and public use, including bird watching.
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.