Coast & Sustainability

Shining a Spotlight on Shorebird Migration

In August of 2023, The Trustees and partners engaged in a migratory shorebird survey covering 1500 acres of the Great Marsh ecosystem.

Shorebird populations have declined by more than half in the last fifty years, due in part to loss of habitat. These long-distance migrants require safe feeding areas – commonly called “staging areas”– along the way to complete their migrations.  

The Great Marsh, the largest contiguous salt marsh in New England, is one of these staging areas and has been identified by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) and the National Audubon Society as an important bird habitat. The Great Marsh provides over 20,000 acres of crucial habitat for both breeding shorebirds and those migrating between their nesting grounds in the tundra and their overwintering areas in the Southern Hemisphere. During their stopover in the Great Marsh, they feed voraciously, doubling their weight so they have enough energy to complete the next leg of their migration. Tens of thousands of shorebirds will use the estuaries, tidal flats, salt marsh, and beaches in the Great Marsh to rest and feed. 


In August of 2023 conservation partners including The Trustees, MassAudubon, MassWildlife, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Parker River NWR, Manomet and volunteers conducted a coordinated shorebird survey over 1500 acres of the Great Marsh ecosystem.  

 The Trustees have been surveying migratory shorebirds at Crane Beach since the 1990s, but this year marked the largest collaborative effort across the Great Marsh ecosystem to conduct simultaneous surveys with partner organizations. Work to conduct joint surveys began in 2021 and has only grown since then. This year’s survey was the largest amount of the Great Marsh that has been surveyed for migratory shorebirds at once. Additionally, the survey contributed to Manomets International Shorebird Survey statewide blitz. This effort brought people together to survey shorebirds between August 5-11. Eighty-nine observers counted 73,088 shorebirds, documenting 29 different species, across 115 sites in Massachusetts.

The survey was conducted at high tide when tidal flats (there primary feeding habitat) is inundated, and the birds are resting or feeding on the beaches and high marsh. By surveying multiple sites simultaneously, we aimed to assess the population of shorebirds using the marsh at a single point in time during their migration. Sites included barrier beach systems like Plum Island and Crane Beach as well as marsh areas in Salisbury, Rowley, Newbury, Ipswich, and Essex Bay. Sites were chosen by where the highest number of birds are typically seen. During the survey, partners and volunteers counted a total of 8,959 shorebirds of 22 different species! 

With at least 18,000 acres of the Great Marsh ecosystem remaining to survey and since migrating shorebirds are in constant flux, this represents only a snapshot of total shorebird use, but it indicates the importance of the Great Marsh for long-distance travelers. In the future, we hope to expand upon this effort to better understand how the Great Marsh supports these declining species.

A chart depicting the numbers of Migratory Shorebirds recorded at the Great Marsh and their species.
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