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Dowitcher Dilemmas

by Drs. Lorna and Dodge Engleman

Since the dowitchers have been coming through the last week or so, I thought it would be a good time to give some hints on telling the Short-billeds (SBD) from the Long-billeds (LBD). Of course, this could be better done by the likes of Martin, Willie, Bob, Matt (when in town)*, and others; but I thought I'd give some hints before the SBD are gone. Yep, they'll be mostly gone by mid September and only LBD will be here by the start of October. Then it gets real easy again.

For references, I used:


One note of interest I came across is that the name, Dowitcher, comes from the call it makes on its breeding ground during flight display and is very similar in both species.

Important points to keep in mind are 1.) LBD is the "default species" in San Antonio as the SBD merely passes through on migration, 2.) almost all of the SBD's we'll see here are of the subspecies hendersoni, and 3.) when passing through (or to) here, many will be in molt and/or have extensive feather wear which will complicate the diagnosis.

Two other points to keep in mind are that 1.) a good diagnosis can best be made by flight/alarm call, and 2.) many individuals will not be diagnosable, especially since they do not commonly call.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the feather tracts on waders (including dowitchers) is different from what you've come to expect from watching passerines. There are two groups of scapular feathers and when at rest, these cover the bulk of the flight feathers and wing coverts. When alerted, the bird will often "raise" these so they tend to cover the back, leaving the flight feathers and wing coverts exposed. They also have significant tertials that, when at rest, hide the underlying primaries. If you see the phrase "primary projection," it refers to the tips of the primaries extending out beyond the tips of the tertials.

Dowitchers come in three plumages: breeding (which may be pretty worn when they reach here and is beginning to be lost because of molt), juvenal (likewise), and non-breeding (which the other two plumages molt into). The SBD is easiest to diagnosis in JUVENAL plumage, as compared to either plumage of the LBD. So, how is that plumage recognized? Look for reddish lines on the tertials (the feathers overlying the ends of the primaries) as opposed to crossbars. If that is clear cut, it implies not only a juvenile, but a SBD juvenile! 

Below is a table that is modified from Paulson's and from Hayman, et al. The FEATURES are listed in importance for differential diagnosis

IN ALL PLUMAGES

FEATURE Short-billed Dowitcher Long-billed Dowitcher
Flight call a low, staccato tu-tu-tu reminiscent of Lesser Yellowlegs high peep or keek like juvenile Black-necked Stilt
Dark bars on central tail feathers (varies) about the same width or thinner than the white bars much wider than the white bars
Primary projection short but noticeable on west coast; less so on our subspecies (not a good mark unless present) lacking; tertials as long as primaries (can't see the primaries under the tertials)

 

BREEDING PLUMAGE

FEATURE Short-billed Dowitcher Long-billed Dowitcher
Sides of CHEST (both species are barred on the sides and flanks) spotted ("s" is for "short" and for "spotted"); our race is the less so! short "bars" (mini-bars) which often extend haphazardly across chest
Ground color of underparts on our race is often as red as in LBD, otherwise paler reddish
Abdomen whitish (but less so in our race!) buffy cinnamon-like chest, lightens with onset of molt
Scapulars buffy to cinnamon edged (except west coast race) white to creamy edged

NOTE: With the above characters, molt and feather wear must be kept in mind.

 

JUVENAL

FEATURE Short-billed Dowitcher Long-billed Dowitcher
Tertials (this is also the best way to recognize this plumage, as breeding in both spp has bars, not stripes) bright, contrasty, cinnamon-edged and lined, giving "tiger stripes" appearance plain, dull gray
Arrival arrives mid to late August (occasionally first week); gone by end of September arrives mid to late September

 

NON-BREEDING (Wintering)

FEATURE: Anything except voice 
Bad News: "fuggedaboudit"--very subtle spotting/speckling vs. non-spotting-that-looks-like-spotting where the breast meets the abdomen.
Good News: by this time all the SBD are on the coast so it's an LBD!!

SUMMARY
With either of the two field guides mentioned above and the table I put together, you're ready to go out and make that definitive diagnosis on your SBD! Of course, unless one calls or you're lucky enough to luck into a juvenile/juvenal (I won't get into that discussion), you're going to notice a little overlap in the features mentioned above on any given bird. Or worse, you're not going to get a good view of some of the features (tail comes to mind). What I'd do is go out after dowitchers with Martin, Willie, or Bob (or of course Matt if he's in town)*! But seriously, with practice they do get easier, and remember--in San Antonio the LBD is the default species, especially after Labor Day. With dowitchers, you're really just trying to pick out the ones that aren't LBD. So get out there now!

*These names were chosen not only for their skill, but for their literary value. Of course, there are other really good shore-birders in Bexar County, any of which would be a big help on telling the dowitchers apart. I won't list their names, but they know who they are!

 

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