Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Shorebirds of Maricopa County

Shorebirds are an incredible group of birds that include plovers, stilts, avocets, sandpipers and phalaropes.  These unique birds are mainly found in aquatic habitats consisting of ponds, lake and ocean edges, mudflats, and some species are also found in both dry and flooded fields.  They feed on a variety of foods, including insects, minnows, aquatic plants, and seeds.  A majority of the shorebird species found in North America breed in the northern part of the region, and are seen in both spring and fall migrations in high numbers throughout North America.  In Arizona and Maricopa County, shorebirds are seen in high numbers in spring migration April through mid-May and in fall especially from August through mid-October.  Maricopa County has several areas with excellent shorebird habitat during these time periods, highly consisting of ponds with fluctuating water levels.  The best location to view shorebirds in Maricopa County is the Glendale Recharge Ponds (Area 7).  These six ponds/basins are huge and attract high numbers of different shorebirds (including rarities) on an annual basis.  Water levels change here constantly.  As many as 21 different shorebird species have been found in one basin at the Glendale Recharge Ponds on a morning!  Several areas throughout the county are good to check for shorebirds, other than the Glendale Recharge Ponds.  Use this intro paragraph as a guide for finding most of these birds at the right time of year.  As long as the habitat is good, any hotspot mentioned on here may hold most of these shorebirds at the right time of year.  Look for shorebirds in migration in:  Area 4 (Gilbert Water Ranch, Higley Road Ponds, Veterans Oasis Park), Area 5 (Rousseau Sod Farms in flooded fields-only good for some species), Area 7 (Agua Fria Riverbed, Glendale Recharge Ponds, Tres Rios Overflow Wetlands, El Rio Research Area, M-C 85 in flooded fields, Tuthill Sludge Pond, as well as both Broadway/Jackrabbit Road Pond and Broadway/Airport Road Pond), and Area 8 (Lower River Road Ponds, Gila Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant, Gila Bend Sewage Ponds, and any flooded fields in the area from the Old Highway 80 south to Paloma Ranch). 


Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus

This small plover almost looks like a miniature Killdeer, but dwarfs the Killdeer in size comparison.  Semipalmated Plovers breed in the high north on tundra, and visit ponds and mudflats during migration and winter.  Plovers feed by scanning for insects and other food in short running bursts, which is distinctive as compared to other shorebirds.  In Maricopa County, this species is mainly seen in migration.  Check in spring through all of April into mid-May and during fall from August through September in the locations mentioned at the top of this page. 


Killdeer Charadrius vociferus

The Killdeer is the one of the most widespread and common shorebirds in North America.  This plover is easily found in a variety of open areas that include ponds, lake edges, fields, lawns, and suburban areas.  It is very common and abundant year round in Maricopa County in these areas, especially in lower elevations.  Young Killdeer are commonly present and easy to observe in season, where the adult is very protective and distracts potential threats and predators away from the location of it's young.


Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus

The Black-necked Stilt is is an odd shorebird commonly found in Maricopa County throughout the year.  This bird is found in ponds and marshes, where it is very noisy in the call notes that it gives.  Black-necked Stilts feed on aquatic insects, small fish, and seeds among their food sources while they forage.  As a breeder in Maricopa County, Black-necked Stilts with young are often observed and are interesting to watch.  Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4) is an excellent area to observe young Black-necked Stilts starting in late May and continuing through July.  Numbers of Black-necked Stilts dramatically increase during migrations compared to other times of the year.  While Black-necked Stilts are commonly found throughout the county in marshes and ponds, the list of locations listed above are often great places to observe them in high numbers.


American Avocet Recurvirostra americana

This beautiful and graceful shorebird breeds throughout much of the west in marshy areas and shallow ponds.  The photograph shown below is the American Avocet in it's breeding plumage, where in it's nonbreeding plumage the peachy color from it's head to lower breast is replaced by a light gray tone which weakly contrasts with the rest of the white on it's body.  Avocets can be found throughout Arizona as a breeder and a migrant, where some of the population spends the winter.  They are common in breeding season, with increased numbers during migration.  In breeding season, adult birds are extremely defensive of their nest and fledglings.  American Avocets will commonly fly to wards birders while calling very loud to warn them they are intruding.  Young avocets may be observed well from mid-May through June.  In Maricopa County, look for avocets throughout the shorebird hotspots listed in the introduction paragraph.  Several good places to see American Avocet families are Gilbert Water Ranch and Higley Road Ponds (Area 4), and the Glendale Recharge Ponds (Area 7). 


Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius

The Spotted Sandpiper is an interesting and widespread shorebird found throughout North America.  It breeds in higher elevations, near pond, river, and lake edges.  This bird is usually seen alongside a water source, as it bobs it's tail while it forages.  It also looks distinctive in flight, almost as if it's gliding with a few wing beats here and there.  Spotted Sandpipers breed in the northeastern part of Arizona, and are seen in migration commonly throughout the state, and a good number of them also winter in the southern half of the state.  In Maricopa County, the Spotted Sandpiper is common during both migrations and in winter.  Look for them along the edges of ponds, rivers, lakes, and canals.  They can be found in most places with open water, and can be found in plenty of places outside of the shorebird hotspots mentioned above in the introductory paragraph.


Solitary Sandpiper Tringa solitaria

This medium-sized shorebird can be found in shallow ponds and pools, and is often located by it's sharp and loud peet-peet call.  It breeds in the northern parts of North America, where it is a very common eastern migrant with much smaller and uncommon migrating numbers in the west.  True to it's name, the Solitary Sandpiper is often seen rolling solo.  In Arizona during both migrations, the Solitary Sandpiper can often be found in smaller numbers on a regular basis.  In Maricopa County, look for Solitary Sandpipers in the shorebird hotspots mentioned above in the introductory paragraph.  They are most often seen in spring migration during March and April and in fall migration during August and September.


Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca

This rather large shorebird is common in Maricopa County throughout much of the year as a migrant and winter resident.  It can be seen in high numbers during these time frames in a variety of ponds, rivers, lake edges, and wetlands.  Greater Yellowlegs are very active as they forage for food, and their loud three to four note call can be heard at far distances.  In addition to the shorebird hotspots mentioned above on the introductory paragraph, Greater Yellowlegs can be found easily at many other water associated habitats throughout Maricopa County.  Greater Yellowlegs breed in the northern part of North America, are a widespread migrant throughout the country, and winter along both coasts and the southern states. 


Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes

The Lesser Yellowlegs is an obvious miniature version of the Greater Yellowlegs.  Both species look very similar, but can be told apart easily by size differences and bill length.  Both species can also be seen side by side during migration, who like to mix in flocks with other species of shorebirds such as Long-billed Dowitchers.  Lesser Yellowlegs have much of the same range as does the Greater Yellowlegs, but has a smaller wintering range and is less common.  Lesser Yellowlegs are mainly migrants in Arizona and are rare at other times.  Look for them in Maricopa County in the shorebird hotspots mentioned above in the introductory paragraph.  In spring migration, look for Lesser Yellowlegs in March and April, and in fall mainly from August through September. 


Willet Tringa semipalmata

This large shorebird looks rather plain as it's wading in the water.  But when the Willet takes flight, it's wing pattern is very striking and beautiful, and is one of shorebirding's classic highlights.  In North America, the Willet has two distinct western and eastern populations, which may represent two different species.  Western birds are larger than eastern birds, and breed inland while wintering in a variety of wetland habitats (including beaches and coasts), while eastern Willets are only coastal.  Western Willets come through Arizona as spring and fall migrants, where they are uncommon in numbers.  Look for Willets in Maricopa County in spring migration during April and May, and in fall migration from August through October in the shorebird hotspots mentioned above in the introductory paragraph. 


Long-billed Curlew Numenius americanus

The sight of the awe-striking Long-billed Curlew is unforgettable.  This big sandpiper is the largest sandpiper in North America, and it's huge bill representive of it's name is four times the length of it's head.  Long-billed Curlews breed throughout the west in fields and prairies, where they feed on a variety of grassland insects.  In migration and winter, the Long-billed Curlew favors the same field habitat (often flooded fields), as well as ponds, mudflats, and parts of both coasts.  In Maricopa County, look for Long-billed Curlews commonly during both migrations, where large numbers congregate in flooded fields.   March and April are excellent during spring migration, and fall through winter may be very good as well.   To find Long-billed Curlews in Maricopa County, agricultural fields are the best bet to search.  When the fields are flooded, chances are much higher to find them, who commonly mix in flocks with White-faced Ibis.  The areas of the southwest part of the county are where they are found most consistently.  In Area 7 (Southwest Phoenix), look in flooded agricultural fields surrounding the Tres Rios Wetlands area,  and the M-C 85 and all of it's branch off roads.  They can be found at Glendale Recharge Ponds at times also.  Area 8 (Arlington to Gila Bend), is the best place to look for curlews, which has the most agriculture that commonly has flooded fields throughout the area.  Look in fields off of Old Highway 80, the fields surrounding Arlington Wildlife Area, and all the way south to the Paloma Ranch area, which also has great agricultural fields that are often flooded.  Long-billed Curlews can be challenging to find in fields that aren't flooded, even though they spend most of their time in dry fields.  They may also stop at any pond in the area, so keep them in mind in the shorebird hotspots mentioned above in the introductory paragraph.


Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa

The Marbled Godwit is a beautiful and large shorebird, breeding in moist and marshy grasslands of the north mid-western part of North America.  It winters along both coasts, and is an uncommon interior migrant throughout North America.  It is often seen in large flocks during migration.  In Maricopa County and throughout Arizona, Marbled Godwits are found in both spring and fall migrations (especially spring) in uncommon numbers.  This bird is regular but may be difficult to find at times.  Look in spring migration, especially in April, where numbers are larger in spring than in fall.  In fall mainly from August until September (rarely later), Marbled Godwits migrate through the county but are much harder to find.  They may turn up in any of the shorebird hotspots mentioned above in the introductory paragraph.  They are sometimes found in flooded agricultural fields during migration also, be sure to check these fields especially in Areas 7 and 8.


Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri

The Western Sandpiper breeds in Alaska on tundra, and is a common migrant throughout western North America and winters along both coasts.  It has the smallest breeding range of the regular North American "peeps".  This bird may form spectacular flocks in the thousands, which is an amazing sight.  In Maricopa County, Western Sandpipers can commonly be seen in spring and fall migrations in high numbers (especially fall).  Small numbers of Western Sandpipers remain through the winter and are usually found by scanning large flocks of Least Sandpipers.  Look for Western Sandpipers in any of the shorebird hotspots mentioned in the introductory paragraph above. 


Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla

The title of the world's smallest sandpiper belongs to the Least Sandpiper.  This tiny "peep" rarely wades, and is found along the edges of ponds, on mudflats, lake edges, and sometimes on dry grass.  Least Sandpipers are widespread breeders in the northern parts of North America.  They are widespread migrants anywhere in North America, and winter along both coasts as well as the southern United States and Mexico.  In Maricopa County, they are present throughout much of the year, except during parts of summer.  Least Sandpipers are abundant in both migrations and through all of winter in the county.  They are easily found in any of the shorebird hotspots mentioned above in the introductory paragraph, and plenty of other locations.   


Baird's Sandpiper Calidris bairdii

The Baird's Sandpiper is a larger "peep" and is noticeably larger than the smaller peeps such as the Western and Least Sandpipers.  It often forages in migration with smaller peeps, making it very easy to pick out.  This shorebird also has very long wings, who's wingtips project well beyond the tail, which is an excellent field mark to look for on a Baird's Sandpiper.  Baird's Sandpipers breed in the far northern part of North America including Alaska, where their preferred habitat is dry tundra.  They migrate down the central part of North America in abundance, and are uncommon in migration throughout the east and west.  In Maricopa County and the rest of Arizona, Baird's Sandpipers are mainly fall migrants.  The best time to see them are in the months of August and September.  They are generally uncommon in numbers when present, but at times can be found in higher numbers.  In Maricopa County, look for the Baird's Sandpiper in most of the shorebird hotspots mentioned in the introductory paragraph above.


Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos

The Pectoral Sandpiper looks almost like a giant Least Sandpiper.  This medium-sized shorebird breeds on wet tundra in the far north, where it interestingly mates several times.  Pectoral Sandpipers are common migrants throughout much of the east, and uncommon in the west.  In migration, they often prefer ponds with grassy edges.  They are mainly fall migrants in Arizona, rarely showing up at other times.  In Maricopa County, they are best seen in through the month of September, sometimes earlier and sometimes later than September.  Most of the shorebird hotspots mentioned in the introductory paragraph above are worth checking for Pectoral Sandpipers in migration.  When scanning ponds, look for grass on the edge of any pond, which a Pectoral Sandpiper would favor.  Look in areas that have extensive mudflats also, as Pectoral Sandpipers often forage and hide in different areas.


Dunlin Calidris alpina

This shorebird has a striking bill and contrasting plumages between breeding and nonbreeding birds (nonbreeding is shown below).  Dunlins are breeders in the far north on tundra, where they migrate through most of North America and winter on both coasts and some of the southern states.  Throughout Arizona, they are an uncommon migrant and winter visitor to ponds and mud flats.  In Maricopa County, they are usually found starting in October, and are often seen throughout the winter in smaller numbers scattered across ponds in the county.  Dunlins may show up in most of the shorebird hotspots listed above in the introductory paragraph. 


Stilt Sandpiper Calidris himantopus

The Stilt Sandpiper is a unique sandpiper that oddly features combinations of dowitchers and tringa sandpipers (Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, etc.), and is very different for a Calidris sandpiper.  It feeds in ways very similiar to dowitchers but wades and walks around like a yellowlegs or another tringa sandpiper.  The Stilt Sandpiper is another northern breeder, summering on tundra in the far northern parts of North America.  It's a very common migrant in the east and uncommon in the west, and it's winters in very few places in the United States.  It is strictly a migrant in Arizona, especially in the fall.  In Maricopa County, Stilt Sandpipers are observed most often from August through September.  They are usually uncommon in numbers during these time frames, but can sometimes be found in high numbers.  In the fall migration time frame, look for Stilt Sandpipers at most of the shorebird hotspots listed above on the introductory paragraph.


Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus

Dowitchers feed in a way that almost looks like a "sewing machine" replica, as they feed in up and down motions with their bill.  Out of the two North American dowitchers, the Long-billed Dowitcher is the expected and common species in Arizona during migration and througout winter.  Long-billed Dowitchers are more likely to be found in freshwater wetlands than the similiar Short-billed Dowitcher.  They prefer shallow ponds and marshy areas where they can stand and feed comfortably.  In North America, Long-billed Dowitchers breed in the far north in these shallow ponds and marshy areas in high elevations.  This species reaches Maricopa County throughout much of both migrations and all of winter, where they are very easy to find and observe in appropriate water levels.  Look for Long-billed Dowitchers in most of the shorebird hotspots listed above on the introductory paragraph.


Wilson's Snipe Gallinago delicata

The Wilson's Snipe is a secretive shorebird, who sits almost motionless in grassy habitats at pond edges.  It's plumage and color help this bird hide and blend in with it's surroundings.  Wilson's Snipes inhabit wet meadows, marshy areas, and bogs in it's North American breeding range, which is rather widespread except for much of the southern half of the United States.  Where it doesn't breed in the United States, it winters in those areas in high numbers and can be seen in both migration periods.  The Wilson's Snipe has an interesting flight pattern, almost in a "zig-zag" motion, which can be observed when spooking up this bird.  Wilson's Snipes also are known for their amazing aerial flight displays.  In Arizona and throughout Maricopa County, look for the Wilson's Snipe from fall migration through all of winter, and into the earlier stages of spring (some individuals stay longer).  In Maricopa County, Wilson's Snipe may be found along the edge of any pond or wet area that has grassy edges where it may hide.  This includes pond edges, wet fields, river edges, and sometimes even more open mudflats.  Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4), is probably the best place in the county to observe this species.


Wilson's Phalarope Phalaropus tricolor

Phalaropes are very interesting shorebirds and are unique in behavior and habits, as well as appearance.  Females are larger than males and are more strikingly plumaged.  The males build the nests, incubate the eggs, and take care of the young, as the female leaves the nest after she lays the eggs.  Phalaropes also feed in very interesting manners.  They spin in the water in constant circles to bring insects they feed on to the surface, which is very interesting to observe.  Out of the three phalarope species, the Wilson's Phalarope is the most common in Arizona, which passes through as a migrant.  In the picture below, these Wilson's Phalaropes are in breeding plumage (the female is on the left, and the male is on the right).  Wilson's Phalaropes are mainly found in the interior, unlike the others who are more coastal.  It breeds in marshy areas near lakes and meadows throughout a good portion of western North America, but not nearly as far north as the other two species.  It is then a common migrant to ponds and muddy areas throughout the west and some of the east.  In Maricopa County, look for this bird mainly in spring and fall migrations.  Late April through much of May is great to look in spring and August through September is a great time during fall.  Wilson's Phalaropes can be found in most of the shorebird hotspots mentioned on the introductory paragraph above.  Some of the better places to observe them are usually the Glendale Recharge Ponds (Area 7), and especially the Gila Bend Sewage Ponds and Gila Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant (Area 8).


Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus

The Red-necked Phalarope passes through Maricopa County at similiar time frames to the Wilson's Phalarope, but is more uncommon.  Red-necked Phalaropes are smaller than the Wilson's Phalarope, and are much shorter billed.  They breed in the far north where they are widespread, with the favored habitat being in shallow tundra ponds.  It migrates abundantly along both coasts, and is uncommon in the west inland where it is outnumbered highly by Wilson's Phalaropes.  Red-necked Phalaropes are found more easily in Maricopa County in fall than they are in spring.  When looking for this bird, refer to the location suggestions and time frames mentioned above for the Wilson's Phalarope.  Red-necked Phalaropes are found at times in small flocks together, but are most often found in the county by scanning through large numbers of Wilson's Phalaropes. 


Also keep an eye out for...

These six shorebirds below are usually found in Maricopa County on an annual basis, although they are uncommon to rare and require more of a searching effort.  A good list of even rarer shorebirds have been found in Maricopa County, but require a lot more luck.  Anything may show up, so keep your eyes peeled!  The more days spent searching for shorebirds will increase the birder's chances of finding these treats. 


Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola

This large plover breeds on tundra in the far north, and is common in winter along both coasts.  It is uncommon in the North American interior during migrations and winter.  In Maricopa County and throughout Arizona, it is annually found in small numbers in shallow ponds, mudflats, and sometimes plowed or short grass fields.  When visiting the shorebird hospots mentioned in the introductory paragraph above, keep this bird in mind throughout both spring and fall migrations.  The photograph below shows a stunning male in breeding plumage (Glendale Recharge Ponds in May 2010), which looks drastically different than birds in nonbreeding plumage. 


Snowy Plover Charadrius alexandrinus

The tiny Snowy Plover is found breeding and year round in North America along the Pacific Coast and Gulf of Mexico, as well as salty lakes in the west.  It's population is sadly declining due to habitat loss.  The Snowy Plover runs quickly when feeding, stopping only to pick up it's food source before resuming it's speed burst.  This little guy can be found in Maricopa County with some luck during spring and fall migrations, more often in fall.  Out of the shorebird hotspots mentioned above, try those with more shallow ponds that are surrounded by mudflats.  The Glendale Recharge Ponds (Area 7), seems to get this bird yearly.  Snowy Plovers have even bred in Maricopa County a few times. 


Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus

This smaller curlew is a breeding resident in tundra of the far northern part of North America.  In migration and throughout winter, it is found in high numbers along both coasts.  It is an uncommon migrant throughout the United States in the interior, where it visits ponds, mudflats, and agricultural fields.  Whimbrels are considered rare but annual migrants in Arizona, and are usually found in several locations throughout Maricopa County during each year.  They may show up in any of the shorebird hotspots mentioned above in the introductory paragraph.  Whimbrels are often found in the prefered habitat of it's much larger cousin in the Long-billed Curlew, which are agricultural fields.  April and May during spring migration and August and September during fall migration are good times to keep the Whimbrel in mind.


Sanderling Calidris alba

Sanderlings are a treat to watch on both coasts during winter, where flocks almost behave like "windup toys".  They follow the waves on beaches, and then retreat when the tide comes back up to shore, and they repeat the process once again.  This is done to feed on insects and other food sources that come in with the tide.  Sanderlings breed in artic coastal tundra of the far north.  In the intertior of of North America, Sanderlings are uncommon inland migrants.  They are rarely seen in spring migration, but are often found in fall.  In Maricopa County, Sanderlings are usually found on an occasion or more yearly at different ponds throughout the county in fall migration.  Look at different ponds especially from August through September.  The Glendale Recharge Ponds (Area 7) have seemed to be a location to attract this species in recent years.


Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidrus pusilla

Like other small "peeps", the Semipalmated Sandpiper breeds on northern tundra.  It is an abundant migrant in eastern North America, and is replaced by the similar Western Sandpiper in the west.  Throughout Arizona in fall migration, the Semipalmated Sandpiper is uncommon to rare and is found yearly by scanning mixed flocks of Western and Least Sandpipers.  It is very similar to a Western Sandpiper, but lacks the rufous tones throughout it's plumage that the Western Sandpiper holds.  Semipalmated Sandpipers are noticed more easily by their much shorter and straight bill than the long and droopy-tipped bill that the Western Sandpiper has.  Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers have black legs, while the Least Sandpiper has yellow legs.  August through September are the best times to look for this species in fall migration throughout Arizona.  It is very rare in spring.  The Glendale Recharge Ponds (Area 7) and Higley Road Ponds (Area 4) have been good places to find Semipalmated Sandpipers in recent years in Maricopa County.


Short-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus griseus

The Short-billed Dowitcher and Long-billed Dowitcher are both very similar and identication between the two can be very tricky in most plumages, with the exception of juvenile birds.  The two differ highly in voice, which is often the best clue to their identification.  While Long-billed mainly prefers freshwater habitats in winter and migration, the Short-billed mainly favors coastal areas during those times.  Short-billed Dowitchers are uncommon interior migrants mainly in fall throughout North America.  In Arizona, this is the case as well, as Short-billed Dowitchers can be found throughout the state mainly in fall migration in low numbers especially from mid-August through September.  Most of these birds are juveniles, who have a distinctive plumage, with bright "tiger-striped" tertials and are much more bright overall where juvenile Long-billed Dowitchers have a much more plain color.  The photograph below shows a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher with it's field marks being very obvious (taken at Glendale Recharge Ponds in early October of 2011).  Keep an eye and ear out for this species in most of the shorebird hotspots mentioned above on the introductory paragraph, where any pond with numbers of Long-billed Dowitchers may have a Short-billed mix in.  Short-billed Dowitchers also associate away from Long-billed Dowitchers regularly.


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