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Wild About Birds - Illinois Shorebirds!

Although 47 shorebird species are recognized from Illinois, only 36 of these species are regularly seen in the state as they pass through during migration, nest within the state or, occasionally for a few species, overwinter. “Shorebirds” in Illinois represent three families of birds. They are sometimes called “waders,” although some species do not wade. They are most often found around water or in places where the soil is wet as most of them feed by probing mud or damp soil with their bill to find small invertebrates to eat. These birds are long-distance travelers. 

Only six of them (black-necked stilt, spotted sandpiper, upland sandpiper, Wilson’s snipe, American woodcock and killdeer) regularly nest in Illinois. Most shorebirds seen in Illinois travel to the Arctic tundra to nest and raise their young. One brood per year is most common, but a few species raise more than one brood per year. For species nesting at high latitudes in the Arctic, the parents do not attempt a second brood or nesting effort (if the first one fails) as there is not enough time remaining in the brief period of optimum nesting conditions. For many shorebirds, they reach the Arctic tundra, nest and raise their young,and then immediately start their southward migration, which for some species is a journey to southern South America. They spend most of their life on the move.

Species Gallery

Identifying shorebirds can be a challenge, but it is easier when you know what to look for. Bill length and shape are important clues. Body size and shape are also significant characteristics. Behaviors, like running, teetering, wading, swimming and probing, can help you identify shorebirds. Also, most shorebird species have at least two and often three different plumages (adult, juvenile and nonbreeding). Knowing when to expect to see each age group may assist you in identification, too.

Kingdom: Animalia - Animals are multicellular organisms that rely on other organisms for nourishment. There cells do not have cell walls. Most animals are capable of movement at least in some portion of their life cycle. Reproduction is generally sexual, but in some animals asexual reproduction may be utilized at certain times.
Phylum: Chordata - The Phylum Chordata contains the vertebrate animals. Mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fishes are included in this phylum. These animals have a notochord at some point in their development. They have a tubular nerve cord along the back. Gill slits and a tail are present at some point in their life cycle. They have an internal skeleton.
Class: Aves - Birds are the only organisms with feathers. They are endotherms, maintaining a nearly constant body temperature. They have a hard bill but no teeth. A gizzard, which functions to grind food, is present in the digestive tract. Fertilization is internal. A nest is built in which the hard-shelled eggs are deposited and incubated.
Order: Charadriiformes- These are small- to medium-sized shore birds. Their toes are usually webbed.
Family Recurvirostridae (Stilts and Avocets) - Stilts and avocets are wading birds with long legs and a thin bill. Males and females are similar in appearance.
     black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
     American avocet (Recurvirostra americana)

Family Charadriidae (Lapwings and Plovers) - Plovers have a compact body with a thick neck. They have large eyes and a short bill. On the ground, they are seen making short runs with stops in between. The sexes are generally similar in appearance.
     black-bellied plover (Pluvialis squatarola) *
     American golden-plover (Pluvialis dominica)
     killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
     semipalmated plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)
     piping plover (Charadrius melodus) [state and federally endangered] *

Family Scolopacidae (Sandpipers) - This group contains the sandpipers, phalaropes and their relatives. Their bill is generally longer and thinner than those of plovers. The sexes have a similar appearance except in phalaropes.
     upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) [state endangered]
     whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) *
     Hudsonian godwit (Limosa haemastica) *
     marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa) *
     ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
     red knot (Calidris canutus) [state and federally threatened] *
     ruff (Calidris pugnax) *
     stilt sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) *
     sanderling (Calidris alba) *
     dunlin (Calidris alpina)
     Baird’s sandpiper (Calidris bairdii)
     least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)
     white-rumped sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis)
     buff-breasted sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis)
     pectoral sandpiper (Calidris melanotos)
     semipalmated sandpiper (Calidris pusilla)
     western sandpiper (Calidris mauri)
     short-billed dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus)
     long-billed dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus)
     American woodcock (Scolopax minor)
     Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata)
     spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius)
     solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria)
     lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes)
     willet (Tringa semipalmata)
     greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)
     Wilson’s phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) [state endangered]
     red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) *
     red phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) *

* This species is not represented on the poster.


​Because they travel so far, some of them from the southern tip of South America to the Arctic tundra and back annually, shorebirds are exposed to many environmental conditions. Their populations can be affected by changes anywhere along the route so managing them can be challenging. Continued cooperation among countries in South, Central and North America, as well as conservation management practices within Illinois must be maintained.

In Illinois, the upland sandpiper, Wilson’s phalarope and the piping plover, Charadrius melodus, are state endangered species. The piping plover is also federally endangered. The Rufa red knot, Calidris canutus rufa, is a state and federally threatened species. The upland sandpiper was very common in Illinois in the 1800s, but unregulated hunting led to its nearly becoming extirpated by the early 1900s. When conservation laws were established, the population recovered. However, the destruction of prairie habitat in the state has led to its decline again. Rufa red knot populations in the United States were decimated in the 1800s by commercial hunting for sport and food. Knot hunting in the U.S. ended with passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, and the population largely recovered. But later coastal development and overharvest of the horseshoe crab, a main food source for the knot, took a toll. Rufa red knot numbers declined about 75 percent from the 1980s to the 2000s. The smaller population that remains now faces many hurdles to recovery, including sea level rise, coast-al development, shoreline stabilization, dredging, reduced food availability at stopover areas, disturbance by humans and climate change. Loss and degradation of wetland habitat has impacted the Wilson’s phalarope in Illinois. Many of the beaches used by piping plovers in the Midwest for nesting have been affected by commercial, residential and recreation-al development. However, in recent years, the number of breeding piping plovers around the Great Lakes has increased, including recent successful nesting on the beaches of Lake Michigan in Illinois, providing hope that populations of this species may be able to recover from their historic lows.

Educational Resources and Materials


Bohlen, H. David. 1989. The birds of Illinois. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. 221 pp.

Chesser, R. T., K. J. Burns, C. Cicero, J. L. Dunn, A. W. Kratter, I. J. Lovette, P. C. Rasmussen, J. V. Remsen, Jr., D. F. Stotz and K. Winker. 2019. Check-list of North American birds (online). American Ornithological Society.

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. 2020. eBird.

Illinois Ornithological Society, Illinois Ornithological Records Committee. 2020. Illinois state list of birds.

Kleen, V. M., L. Cordle and R. A. Montgomery. 2004. The Illinois breeding bird atlas. Illinois Natural History Survey Special Publications No 26. Illinois Natural History Survey, Champaign, Illinois. Xviii + 459.pp.

Matthews, S. N., R. J. O’Connor, L. R. Iverson and A. M. Prasad. 2004. Atlas of climate change effects in 150 bird species of the eastern United States. General technical Report NE-318. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Northeastern Research Station, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. 340 pp.

Peterson, Roger Tory. 2008. Peterson field guide to the birds of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 527 pp.

Walk, J. W., M. P. Ward, T. J. Benson, J. L. Deppe, S. A, Lischka, S. D. Bailey and J. D. Brawn. 2010. Illinois birds: a century of change. Illinois Natural History Survey Special Publications 31. Illinois Natural History Survey, Champaign, Illinois. 230 pp.

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