The Vanguard of Autumn

A few weeks after the summer solstice, some shorebird species begin to depart their Arctic breeding grounds.  Over the following weeks and months, migrant shorebirds appear in the American Heartland, stopping to rest and feed on their way to southern beaches.

This annual "autumn" migration begins by mid July and will peak from late August through mid September; some shorebirds (e.g. yellowlegs, dunlins) may be encountered as late as October and early November.  These travelers are best observed at our larger lakes and reservoirs, where the plovers, sandpipers, avocets, godwits and phalaropes gather in the shallows or forage across the mudflats; backwater areas are generally most productive but shorebirds may also be seen in ephemeral ponds or on flooded fields.

While many species are easily identified, the smaller sandpipers pose a challenge for most birders and patient observation with a spotting scope is often necessary, especially since these skittish migrants must usually be viewed from a significant distance.  Some of us, more focused on this vanguard of autumn than on the individual travelers, welcome their presence as a sign that the intense heat of summer will soon begin to wane.