Birds at the Beach

During the summer a favourite pastime for many Islanders is going to the beach for the day. Beaches are a great place to go to look for living things. Birds are probably the most common sight…next to those pesky horseflies. Shore birds are small to medium sized waders. They often have slender probing bills and longish legs. Shore birds include plovers and sandpipers. During this module shore birds will be discussed, including PEI most endangered organisms, along with other common marine birds, seagulls and the great blue heron.

Shore Birds

Shore birds are the often spotted along the shorelines, although they may found inland, upland or at sea. The term shore bird refers to families of plovers, sandpipers and related forms. Although seagulls are often found along the shore, they are not considered shore birds. Shore birds are much smaller than the gulls. They have slender, probing bills and long, skinny legs. They often visit wetlands and are great migrants.

Piping Plover

Piping plovers are small pale shore birds, measuring 17-18cm and weighing 43-63g. They inhabit open, sandy beaches. These cute little birds have relatively long legs and a short neck. Their backs are pale tan, legs are yellow, and underparts are white with one black or brown band on the chest that is often broken.

Despite their size, piping plovers will chase intruders, peaking and biting them. They feed on insects and small aquatic invertebrates. Piping plover search for prey visually. Once prey is spotted they run rapidly, stop and then peck or quickly snatch the prey.

Like most shorebirds, piping plover nest on the ground and therefore are often disturbed. It is due to this along with other factors that the piping plover population is at risk of extinction, not only in PEI, but worldwide.

Check out this link to the Parks Canada website to learn more about this endangered species, what is being done to save it and what you can do.

Semipalmated Plover

The semipalmated plover is another plover that nests in PEI. When compared to piping plover they are quite similar in size and appearance. The semipalmated plover has a short neck, white underparts and moderately long, yellowish  leg, just like the piping plover. The brown back and small, dark single band of the semipalmated across the chest makes the two plovers distinguishable.

Semipalmated plovers have been seen swimming short distances. The often build their ground nest along the shoreline. Like the piping plover, semipalmated plovers are ground foragers that feed on insects, snatching their prey in the same manners. Unlike the piping plover population, the semipalmated plover population appears to be increasing possible due to their versatility in habitat and food selection.


Killdeer is also a common PEI plover. They have a large round head, large eyes and short bill. This plover is similar in colour to the semipalmated plover with its brown back and white underparts. Killdeer tend to be slight larger than semipalmated plover, have two black bands across their chests. They are slender and appear lanky compared to the other two plovers.

The name Killdeer originated from the wailing kill-deer call. They are often attracted to gravel rooftops, which can prove to be dangerous for chicks. Killdeer are great swimmers which have been seen swimming in fast, flowing water. As a way to lead predators away from their eggs, killdeer will pretend to be injured, dragging a wing as they walk away from their nest. This is referred to as the broken wing act.

Killdeer, ground foragers, feed on invertebrates, such as earthworms, snails, crayfish, grasshoppers, beetles and aquatic insect larvae. They, just like the other plovers, nest on the ground. They often build their nest on grasslands or open areas, such as sandbars, mudflats and grazed field. Killdeer may be venture away from the shore and head to golf courses, parking lots, lawns or athletic fields.

Other Shorebirds Common in the Summer:

  • Willet
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Upland Sandpiper
  • Common Snipe
  • American Woodcock


The Gulls

Seagulls are distantly related to the shore birds already discussed, as they are all members of the order Charadriiformes. Charadriiformes live near water and eat invertebrates or other small animals. Seagulls are a common sight in PEI year-round. It is almost impossible to go to the beach and not see a seagull. Seagulls are not all the same species, but instead a grouping of several different gulls. In PEI, there are three common species of gulls, herring gulls, ring-billed gulls and great black backed gulls.

Herring Gull

  • Size: large; 55-66cm in length; 137-146cm wingspan
  • Feather: slate gray back and wings; black spotted with white wingtips; white body and head
  • Beak: yellow with red spot on lower mandible
  • Food: marine fish – herring, invertebrates, other birds, eggs, garbage and carrion
  • Breeding and Nesting: May to June
  • Breeding age: 4 or 5
  • Social birds that nest in colonies
  • Nest: on ground; shallow scrape lined with grass, feathers and other debris

Ring-billed Gull

  • Size: medium; 43-54cm in length; 105-117cm wingspan
  • Feather: head, neck and underparts are white; back and wings are gray; wingtips are black with white spots
  • Beak: yellow with black ring near tip
  • Legs and feet: yellow
  • Breeding age: 3 years old; “3 year gull”
  • Nest: shallow depression made on the ground; lined with grass, reed and rushes
  • Food: omnivore; fish and other marine creatures, small birds, eggs, rodent, earthworms, garbage, steal from other birds

Great Black Backed Gull

  • Size: largest gull in the world; 71-79cm in length; 146-160cm wingspan
  • Feathers: white head, neck and underparts; dark gray to sooty black back and wings
  • Beak: yellow with red spot on lower mandible
  • Legs: Pale pink
  • Breeding and Nesting: May to June
  • Breeding age: 4 years old; “4 year gull”
  • Food: prey on other gulls, small ducks, fish and shellfish, eggs and young of other gulls
    • Carnivorous and frequently hunt and kill
    • Rob other seabirds of their catch
  • Found with herring gulls

Another Seabird

Great Blue Heron

As a child I spent many of my summer at my cousin’s cottage on the Montague River. Great Blue Herons were a familiar sight. They are quite common in PEI during the sometime. This heron, the largest in North America, has long legs, a sinuous (or curved) neck and a thick, dagger-like bill. The head, chest and wing feathers give the bird a shaggy appearance. Great blue herons appear blue-gray from a distance with a wide black stripe over their eyes.

Great Blue Herons can be found in saltwater and freshwater habitats such as open coasts, marshes, sloughs, riverbanks and lakes. They forage shallow waters, grasslands and agricultural field for fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects and other birds. 

Other Heronlike bird:

  • American Bittern


Waterfowl are quite commonly seen when sailing up and down a river. Often flocks of Canadian Geese can be seen wading in the waters of shelter coves. American black ducks are common around wharfs. Go check out the waterfowl common to rivers in your area. 

You might see:

  • Canadian Geese
  • Wood Duck
  • American Black Duck
  • Gadwall
  • Mallard
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Blue-winged Teal

**These are just some of the birds you could see at the beach. For more information check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.


Go birding at the beach or along a river! Pick up a field guide and identify and discuss the birds you see.

Go back to Summer Modules.