Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Staying Connected Through Shorebirds

By Catherine Hickey and Matt Reiter

Long-billed Curlew with sanderlings in background, photo by Laird Henkel

Migratory shorebirds are global ambassadors that through their great migrations connect us across political and geographic boundaries. From frosty tundra, to mudflats and rocky shorelines hugging the edges of the giant forests of the Pacific Northwest. From the shores of some of the largest cities on the planet (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Panama City) to the desert dunes, beaches and estuaries of Baja where communities play, fish, and produce salt and shrimp. From the tropical coasts of Colombia and Ecuador to, as if coming full circle, the rocky forested shorelines of southern Chile where shorebirds vie for space with fishermen collecting kelp and with penguins for safe roosting spots. However the populations of these birds are declining and we do not know why.

While there have been many challenges this year, 2020 represents a significant milestone for shorebird conservation science at Point Blue. Last month the foundational paper from our internationally collaborative Migratory Shorebird Project was published in Avian Conservation and Ecology (see Point Blue publication brief here and a fantastic writeup of the publication over here by our friends at Birds Canada, the Project’s Canadian partner). Our new paper validates the methodology and partnership network we have developed over the past ten years to effectively monitor shorebirds and conserve their habitat. As well, 2020 marks the year that the Migratory Shorebird Project engaged the 13th and final country–Guatemala–on the Pacific Coast of the Americas in this incredibly ambitious, large-scale, multinational, partner-driven conservation science program.

This map shows just some of the 1,000+ survey sites at which the Project collects data.

The Migratory Shorebird Project is the largest collaborative research and monitoring program of shorebirds on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The Project helps guide conservation and management of shorebirds, other wetland dependent species, and their habitats in all 13 countries that touch the Pacific Ocean in the Western Hemisphere. We are currently working with over 50 organizational partners and 500 volunteers to collect data annually on over 1.5 million shorebirds representing 44 species, as well as tracking the condition of their wetland habitat at over 84 critical wetlands.

We use data from the Project to better understand what factors and threats are affecting shorebirds and their habitats. We then work with local, regional, national, and international stakeholders to use the data to guide conservation and management decisions. Over the last several years, Migratory Shorebird Project data have been used to: designate a new Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site in Nicaragua; evaluate the health of the San Francisco Bay estuary; guide resource management in National Park Sanquianga in Colombia; and reduce human disturbance in protected areas of Mexico and Peru. Furthermore, the research of graduate students in Mexico and Canada has provided a foundation of science to guide conservation actions and helped build capacity for sustained conservation of shorebirds and coastal wetlands.

2019 Migratory Shorebird Project Workshop in Guatemala.

Connecting people and communities through birds and informatics is a key theme of the Migratory Shorebird Project and we need this common connection now more than ever. Over the last 9 years, we have been building capacity within our network of collaborators to take advantage of our extensive data for applied research and conservation through many different training workshops. All project data are entered through an online data entry portal hosted by Point Blue and made openly available for analysis and decision-making through online data summary applications.

Dr. Eduardo Palacios of Mexico, notes: “The online data and applications maintained by Point Blue and the Migratory Shorebird Project have enhanced our ability to rapidly provide information on the distribution and abundance of shorebirds both within and among estuaries to key conservation stakeholders in Mexico, particularly the federal government. This information identifies priority areas for shorebird conservation.”

The paper and the scope of the Project are great accomplishments in themselves but they are also arguably the culmination of work started at Point Blue over 50 years ago. The Migratory Shorebird Project has been built on the foundation laid by Point Blue with our early work in Bolinas Lagoon and the Point Reyes estuaries and lagoons where we learned how to monitor and study shorebirds nearly 50 years ago and continue working today. The Project also leverages the partnerships initially cultivated by the Point Blue-led (then Point Reyes Bird Observatory) Pacific Flyway Project in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, this was the largest shorebird monitoring effort on the Pacific Coast of the Americas and attempted to count all birds with the help of many partners and volunteers. It was the innovative spirit of some key staff–Gary Page, Lynne Stenzel and Dave Shuford–and the willingness of diverse groups of people to participate that has made it possible for us to now increase the scale of our shorebird research and monitoring from west Marin to the Western Hemisphere.

With the increasing pace of environmental change, rapid transfer of shorebird and environmental data is essential for an effective conservation response. The Migratory Shorebird Project provides a powerful model for conservation science. By working collaboratively, from local to continental scales, the Project is strengthening and growing the research, management, and human connections essential for making smart conservation decisions along our shorelines for decades to come.

The United States Forest Service’s International Programs and Copper River International Migratory Bird Initiative, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Mennen Environmental Foundation are critical sustaining supporters of the Migratory Shorebird Project. 

For more information on how to work with and support the Migratory Shorebird Project please contact Matt Reiter ( of Point Blue Conservation Science.