Aug 12 2016
It’s shorebird time and many of us are confused. In southwestern Pennsylvania we only see these birds on migration and a lot of them look alike.
I’m not good at shorebirds but I want to be better. What to do? Practice! Here are some tips I’m using this month, written down so I don’t forget. Maybe they’ll help you, too.
Here’s a quick summary:
- Prepare in advance.
- Take your time.
- For some brown/gray shorebirds, 3 field marks are all you need:
- Size compared to other birds,
- Beak shape, size and color,
- Leg length (relative to body) and color.
Still stumped? You’ll have to read …
THE WHOLE LIST:
Prepare in advance:
- Choose a birding location with lots of shorebirds so you can compare sizes, shapes and behavior.
- Before you go, narrow your choices to what’s possible at that location at that time of year. Make a list. Highlight the common ones. Bookmarks help.
- Take field guides(*), a scope(+), a sun hat, and maybe a chair. These birds stay put. So will you.
Methods in the field:
- Take your time! Study their behavior. Quick impressions don’t work.
- Pick one bird to identify. Learn it well then move on.
- Don’t focus on plumage yet unless the bird has really striking colors or patterns. (Plumage is the least useful field mark on difficult shorebirds.)
- Size: Compare to other shorebirds. (ex: smaller than a killdeer?)
- Beak shape: Long or short? Straight or Curved up or down? Convex (bulged) or thin? Sharp tip or blunt?
- Legs: Long or short relative to the body?
- Neck: Long? Short? “No-neck”?
- Head: Big or little? Round or long?
- Body: Chunky? Thin? Stubby? Long?
- Color of beak and legs. (Sometimes size, beak and legs are all you need)
- Stands tall or always crouched?
- In a tight flock or solo?
- Does it stand in water? Or does it stay at the edge, hating to get its feet wet?
- Does it peck daintily? Grab and go? Move its bill like a sewing machine needle?
- Does it chase waves? (field mark of a sanderling)
- Now look at plumage (adults + juveniles this month). Does it match your guess?
- Can’t make up your mind? Repeat the process.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)
p.s. Did I miss anything? Do you have a tip for shorebird practice? Please post it in a comment.
Footnotes: Here are some great guides to use at home or while sitting in the field. These books are big and heavy.
(*) For plumage and field marks: The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition.
(*) For detailed behavior of each species (No pictures): Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion
(+) Scope: If you have a really good camera it can out-perform a scope. Photos show the details frozen in time.