How to Report Banded Shorebirds

Reporting re-sightings of banded birds plays an important role in shorebird conservation.

Although it may not feel like it, spring is officially here, which means it’s also time for spring migration! From late March through early June, the shores of Long Island, New York, and its barrier islands will host thousands of shorebirds as they rest and refuel on their journey to breeding grounds, often as far north as the Arctic. If you spot a shorebird with colored rings on its legs while enjoying the resurgence of life on the beach, you’re in luck: you’ve just spotted a banded shorebird!

Bird banding is a useful research method performed by trained biologists that allows them to better understand bird behavior, demographics, and habitat requirements. Banded birds help researchers answer questions about migratory routes and population dynamics, such as where do individuals overwinter, what path do they take to get there, and how many survive the migration? The answers to such questions will help create protective actions and management strategies to aid shorebird populations, many of which are in decline. But, banding the birds is not enough to answer these questions—researchers need your help! The public plays a critical role in this research by reporting re-sightings of banded birds. Before you grab your binoculars and head outside, here are some helpful tips on what to look for and where to report your sightings.

First of all, you will need to bring some equipment with you to view the birds—most shorebirds are very small and their bands cannot be read with the naked eye. The best method for viewing field-readable bands is with a spotting scope, but it is possible to make due with a good pair of binoculars and some patience. When setting up your scope, it is important to keep in mind that these birds are utilizing Long Island’s shores to rest on their long journey, so be sure to keep at least a 50 meter distance from a flock of shorebirds so that you do not disturb the birds. If you need to get closer in order to read the band code, take a slow approach and be patient.

Now that you have a banded bird in sight, what exactly are you looking for? Here are the four things to keep in mind when recording bands:

  • Band Type: There are two types of bands: bands that circle around the leg and flags that have a portion that stick out from the leg.
  • Band Color: Both bands and flags can occur in different colors. For piping plovers, the flag color will determine to whom the resighting will be reported.
  • Band Code: In many cases, but not all, bands or flags will have character codes etched into them. These usually have two or three alphanumeric characters.
  • Position on Legs: In general, banded shorebirds will have bands on 4 potential locations on their legs: upper left, lower left, upper right, and lower right (positions are as if you are looking at the bird from the rear). Some tricky shorebirds could have 2 bands in each leg position, while other birds may not have any bands in a particular leg position at all, so pay attention to the locations. For example, in the upper right leg position, an individual shorebird may have a red band above a blue band—this order matters!

Remember: each of the bands on the shorebirds can be different colors and occur in unique combinations in order to identify individuals, so it is important to record the band combinations accurately. This may seem like a lot of information and can be confusing, but just remember to do your best!

After identifying the bird species and recording the specific band combinations, record as much additional information as you can: date, location, coordinates, and flock size are important for researchers to know. If possible, having a photo of the banded shorebird is very helpful. Don’t have a camera with a telephoto lens? Try taking a picture with your phone through the spotting scope or binocular lens—the results aren’t perfect, but it often works well enough to read the band codes!

The final step after spotting a banded shorebird is to report it to the appropriate place. The reporting place will be different based on the shorebird species, so follow the appropriate links below:

  • Piping Plover: There are multiple banding projects across North American for piping plovers so pay close attention to the bands and report to the appropriate bander (table from USFWS):
Piping Plover Band Type & Color Report Sighting To
Color Bands (No Flags) on Upper Legs and

Green Flag

Pink Flag and

Black Flag, White Flag, or Gray Flag
Yellow Flag or Cobalt Blue Flag

Orange Flag OR Metal Band on Upper Leg (No Flag) and One or More Color Bands on the Lower Legs
Light Blue Flag and

Red Flag

After submitting your re-sighting, you’ll often be able to view a map of the individual’s migration route—the bird will likely have travelled further than you thought. Remember that any bird band resighting information you can provide is appreciated. Also, with this year marking 100 years of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it’s a great time to get involved with helping migrating birds of all kinds. Be sure to follow the Year of the Bird to find more ways you can help. Happy birding!