Among the many interesting species of birds of Minnesota and worldwide are a group collectively called "shorebirds." These swimming and wading birds are divided into five families, comprising 23 genera and 62 species, many of which either migrate through Minnesota or breed and nest here.

One of my first experiences with a bona fide shorebird occurred when I was just a boy. Playing baseball with friends on a school field and taking my place in the outfield at the start of another inning, a bird suddenly appeared on the ground in front of me.

Screeching wildly and running on the ground with its wings dragging, I was as much surprised by the bird and its antics as I was curious. And so, like the bird wanted me to, I followed, forgetting for a moment that I was playing a baseball game.

Though far from any major water source on the baseball field, my introduction to this common species — a killdeer — taught me about a killdeer’s diversionary broken-wing tactic. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was being led away from the bird’s nest as she cried her “Killdeer! Killdeer! Killdeer!” call and scrambled through the short grass just out of my reach.

We spotted this killdeer protecting her nest at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota. (Flickr photo by Courtney Celley/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Midwest Region)
We spotted this killdeer protecting her nest at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota. (Flickr photo by Courtney Celley/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Midwest Region)

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While killdeer are considered common and are found throughout Minnesota, there exists another shorebird that are found only on prairie landscapes — the upland sandpiper. Its melancholy wolf-whistles, delicate touchdown landings, and the ever-so-careful folding of their wings to their sides of their bodies sets this species apart from other shorebirds.

Another special shorebird is the lobe-toed, clownish-acting Wilson’s phalarope. While just three species of phalaropes exist in North America, only the Wilson’s phalarope nests in Minnesota. The breeding plumage of the male Wilson’s phalarope, though not quite as brilliant colored as the other two species of phalaropes, displays a striking black stripe over the eyes and along each side of the neck.

Wilson's phalarope at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. (Flickr photo by Tom Koerner/ U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region)
Wilson's phalarope at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. (Flickr photo by Tom Koerner/ U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region)

Unlike most other shorebirds, phalaropes spend a lot of time swimming. Their whirligig swimming style is actually by design, and not the seemingly nervous behavior it appears to be. The more agitated their surface-spinning becomes, the more particles of food arises for them to consume.

One migrant shorebird that most people don’t think of as a shorebird has only recently returned to Minnesota. A bird of the forest no less, the American woodcock is indeed a shorebird. These beloved and plump little shorebirds — sometimes affectionately called timberdoodles — are now performing aerial courtship flights and songs.

Upon hatching, young American woodcocks are very well camouflaged and well developed. This one was spotted at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. (Flickr photo by Rachel Samerdyke/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Midwest Region)
Upon hatching, young American woodcocks are very well camouflaged and well developed. This one was spotted at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. (Flickr photo by Rachel Samerdyke/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Midwest Region)

Meanwhile, the woodcock’s close relative and near lookalike, the Wilson’s snipe, which is a shorebird, too, can now be heard winnowing above marshes and other wetlands nearly everywhere.

These two species’ fascinating and entertaining courtship aerial displays are only performed by the males, while females observe the shows on the ground below.

Though shorebirds come in all shapes and sizes, certain physical and behavioral qualities characterize this large group of birds. Many species share the basic body features of long bills, long legs, and webbed feet, but not all. Most can be found near or in water, but not all.

Yet all shorebirds display certain behaviors that are diagnostic of the species, such as a killdeer’s broken-wing display; the spinning and swimming phalarope; the head-bob of a woodcock, and so on.

Many shorebirds can be observed wading in shallow water as they probe with their beaks in the soft sand and mud searching for insects, mollusks, and other invertebrates.

Some, like the beautiful and graceful American avocet with its long blue-gray legs and thin, recurred bills, are usually observed skimming the surface of ponds with their beaks searching for insects and insect larvae.

One of the largest shorebirds, avocets are about 15 inches in length.

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Shorebirds, so diverse and widespread, are common most everywhere in Minnesota’s lake country and prairie-wetland landscape. Sure to please, most resident migrant shorebirds have returned once again to breed and nest here in the northwest, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.