This hatching-year Least Sandpiper at Christmas Island is in constant motion as it searches for food. 
(John G. Woods photo)

This hatching-year Least Sandpiper at Christmas Island is in constant motion as it searches for food. (John G. Woods photo)

Column: Salmon Arm Bay provides a bonanza for migrating shorebirds

Nature Watch by John G. Woods

By John G. Woods

With the supply and cost of energy on everyone’s mind these days, the ecological importance of the Salmon Arm Bay stands out as a primary natural refueling station for thousands of shorebirds as they migrate south this autumn.

Shorebirds include the familiar spotted sandpipers and killdeer that have nested locally, and a legion of long-distance migrants with less familiar names such as the semipalmated sandpiper, the red-necked phalarope and the long-billed dowitcher.

These ‘long-haulers’ have nested far to the north in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic. They are headed for wintering areas in southern North America, Central America and South America.

Take for example, the juvenile least sandpipers that are currently visiting our muddy shores.

They were born far north of us in the subarctic tundra and boreal forest. From the day they hatched the tiny sandpipers fed themselves and before the chicks were big enough to migrate, their parents left for the south.

Propelled by instinct alone, these young sandpipers have stopped at Salmon Arm Bay to replenish their fat reserves.

A specialist in probing the lake edge for invertebrates buried in the mud, least sandpipers weigh in at about 20 grams.

They need to fatten up by as much as five grams (the weight of a nickel) before launching the next leg of their migration. For some least sandpiper populations, this small but critical weight gain is enough to propel them as far as 3,200 kilometres on a non-stop flight!

Read more: Column: Shuswap winters brighten with the song of black-capped chickadees

Read more: COLUMN: Appreciating the bird-watching bounty of Salmon Arm Bay

You can do the math on how much a nickel’s worth of gasoline would get you down the road.

The sandpipers also can boast making this journey on 100 per cent green fuel. Aquatic lake algae capture sun’s energy that in turn nourishes mud-dwelling invertebrates such as bloodworms.

As the level of Shuswap Lake goes down from summer through fall, a feast of lake-bottom food is spread out for the hungry migrants. Invertebrates become bird fat and bird fat provides the energy for migration.

The citizen science eBird website currently lists observations of over 30 species of shorebirds that have been recorded on the bay.

It isn’t uncommon to spot 10 or more species in a single day during spring and autumn migration-times.

As local shorebird expert Don Cecile observed in a recent email: “Salmon Arm Bay is the most important shorebird migration stop-over site in the interior of British Columbia.” Aren’t we lucky to have front-row seats!

To see least sandpipers and many other types of shorebirds, I suggest a stroll along the wharf while paying close attention to the exposed mudflats beneath you, and below to the traffic loop at the base of the wharf.

Bring binoculars if you have them because many shorebird species are quite small and can be challenging to identify. If you see someone looking through a spotting scope, they’ll likely be happy to help you identify several species. Birdwatchers from all over B.C. and beyond visit us to see our autumn shorebird migrations and their return journeys in the spring.
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Sign up for our newsletter to get Salmon Arm stories in your inbox every morning.

#Salmon ArmbirdsShuswap Lake