Spring is almost here, but there’s still time to enjoy the thousands of shorebirds that are visiting the Berkeley waterfront for some winter R&R.

These birds were able to travel in 2020, even if we couldn’t. Many flew thousands of miles to get here, from as far away as the High Arctic or the Great Plains. Shorebirds are drawn to the Bay Area in winter by our climate, our shorelines bordered with marsh plants, and the large variety of invertebrates and small shellfish that thrive in the Bay’s mix of salt and fresh water.

What is a shorebird?

Not all birds along the Berkeley shoreline are shorebirds. The essential characteristic of shorebirds is that they feed by picking and probing with their bills. Some hunt by sight, while others with longer bills probe in the mud and the bay floor, hunting by touch and smell.
When you see a number of shorebirds feeding together, notice how their different sizes and bill lengths allow them to occupy slightly different niches in the same habitat, so that they’re not directly competing for the same food resources.

Shorebirds are also notable for their long legs: The Brits call them “waders”!

Two willets shorebirds
Two Willets. Photo: Alan Krakauer Credit: Alan Krakauer

Some great birds to get you started

Shorebird watching is rewarding for beginning birders and children, as they’re easy to see when wading and feeding along the shoreline. It’s helpful to have binoculars, but you can often get good looks with the naked eye.

Here are some of our larger shorebirds, which are easier to identify than the numerous tiny “peeps” or sandpipers that you’ll also see:

Long-billed Curlew: The largest North American shorebird is famous for its very long, down-curved bill. Its back and side feathers are a mix of warm peachy tones, along with brown and white, and its belly is solidly a warm peachy color. The combination of long legs and very long bill allow the Long-billed Curlew to reach food no other shorebird can get.

Its smaller cousin, the Whimbrel, is a study in shades of brown and white, with distinct head stripes. The Whimbrel also has a down-curved bill, but it’s relatively shorter and less sharply curved. In most Bay Area locations, Whimbrels are less common than Long-billed Curlews.

Long billed curlew shorebird
A long billed curlew. Photo: Ingrid Taylor Credit: Ingrid Taylor
Whimbrel, with identifying stripe across head. Photo: Bob Lewis Credit: Bob Lewis

Marbled Godwit: This bird has a distinctly two-toned bill. The basal half nearer its head is pink, and the lower part is black. The Marbled Godwit’s overall coloration is also a warm peach. But its bill color and shape (almost straight, with a slight upturn) distinguish it from the Long-billed Curlew, and it’s also slightly smaller than a curlew.

Marbled Godwit shorebird
Marbled Godwit. Photo: Derek Keats Credit: Derek Keats

Willet: In the winter, Willets are a study in gray–gray head and back, gray folded wings, gray legs with a long, darker bill. When they fly, Willets display a broad white stripe on their wings. They’re smaller than Marled Godwits, with whom they often feed and hang out.

A Willet shorebird in flight
A Willet in flight. Photo: Bob Lewis Credit: Bob Lewis

Black-bellied Plover: Plovers are stocky, with short necks. Black-bellied Plovers have large black eyes, stubby black bills, and black legs. This bird is called the Grey Plover in the rest of the world, and when you see Black-bellied Plovers in the winter, you can understand why. Black-bellied Plovers do have black bellies, flanks, throats, necks, and faces—but only in their summer breeding plumage. If you see them in September, many still have some black belly feathers.

American Avocet: Some Avocets nest in the Bay Area, but there are many more here in the winter. Avocets have upturned bills. Distinctively patterned in black and white in the winter, both the females and males have rich cinnamon feathers on their necks and heads in spring and summer. Avocets swim as well as walk and wade. They feed in a variety of ways, but their most distinctive behavior is sweeping their bills side-to-side through the water in a motion called scything.

Black-necked Stilt: These tall, slender shorebirds have long bubble-gum pink legs and tuxedo-like coloring. Their necks are black and white; their faces are patterned in black and white; their backs and wings are black, and their bellies are white.

Black Necked Stilt shorebird
Black Necked Stilt. Photo: Frank Schulenberg Credit: Frank Schulenberg

Other water birds: Although not classified as shorebirds, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Snowy Egrets are other spectacular birds that frequent the Oakland shoreline in winter, along with Brown Pelicans.

When and where to look for shorebirds

Shorebirds live by the tides. A web search with the keywords “NOAA Tide Predictions” and the names of the places listed below can give you a daily graph of high and low tides. On San Francisco Bay, there are two high tides and two low tides every day.

Many shorebirds will be actively feeding as the high tide goes out. When the tide chart shows a water level of 5 or 5.5 feet, there’s usually enough exposed mudflat for birds to forage but they’ll still be fairly close to shore—an ideal time for viewing.

The habitat available to shorebirds is just a fraction of what it once was: 90% of the Bay’s pre-1850 wetlands have been lost to development. Organizations like Save the Bay and Golden Gate Audubon Society are working hard to preserve what’s left and restore degraded shoreline so it’s welcoming to wildlife.

Shorebird hotspots in and near Berkeley

César Chávez Park. Park along Marina Way and walk along the Virginia Street Extension trail.

Albany Waterfront Trail. Park at the foot of Buchanan Street.

Point Isabel Regional Shoreline, along the S.F. Bay Trail, and north to Hoffman Marsh, Meeker Slough, and Shimada Friendship Park.

Emeryville near the end of Powell Street, by the fire house and on the walking paths.

Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary in Alameda, at the southeast end of Crown Beach.

Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, inside the Port of Oakland at the end of 7th Street in Oakland.

Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline in Oakland. Best viewing at Garretson Point (park at the end of Edgewater Drive) or Arrowhead Marsh (enter from Swan Way and park at the end of the road).

Birdwatching at MLK Regional Shoreline in Oakland.
Birdwatching at MLK Regional Shoreline in Oakland. Photo: Ilana DeBare Credit: Ilana DeBare
Black-necked Stilts shorebirds
Black-Necked Stilts. Photo: Rick Lewis Credit: Rick Lewis

More about shorebirds

Learn more about all these species at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s allaboutbirds.org website. Download the free Merlin app for your phone, also by Cornell: It’s a really easy and user-friendly way to identify the birds you’re seeing.

Then get outside to the shoreline! Over the next month, many of our winter visitors will head off to their summer destinations. This is a great time to see them before they leave.

For more information on Berkeley birds and birdwatching opportunities see goldengateaudubon.org.

Maureen Lahiff teaches a shorebirds class for Golden Gate Audubon Society each winter and participates in local shorebird and waterbird counts.