The Long and the Short of It

Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus)

I hadn’t seen these birds for so long I completely forgot their names. And when I did think of it, it was wrong. These weren’t Marbled Godwits, which I hadn’t seen for months. These were birds I hadn’t seen for five years. The Merlin BirdID app said they were Short-billed Dowitchers. Or maybe Long-billed Dowitchers. I checked the pictures in Cornell, Audubon, and Wikipedia. No doubt. They’re Dowitchers. Long-billed or Short-billed? The name is misleading. The length of the bill is pretty much indistinguishable between the two species. The best way to tell them apart, according to the sources, is by vocalization. If the birds squeak and whistle while feeding, they’re long-billed. If silent, short-billed. Also, the short-billed are more likely to forage in salt water; the long-billed tend to prefer fresh water. So, with these clues, my two cents are on Short-billed.

Both Dowitcher species feed in the same random rapid-fire manner as the Least Sandpipers. Their beaks are longer, so they can get at proteins buried a bit deeper. They routinely stick their whole head underwater while probing. Although the beak is rigid, they have exquisitely sensitive nerves at the tip (Herbst corpuscles) that allow them to identify what’s down there. One source says the bird was formerly called the German (“Deutscher”) snipe as distinct from English snipe, and Deutscher morphed into Dowitcher. But another source says “dowitcher” comes from the Iroquois name for this bird. By either name, there are three subspecies, with subtle color variations. This one could be the hendersoni subspecies, having a slightly reddish belly and spotted flanks. Like many other birds, the dowitcher breeds in the far north of Canada and in Alaska. We are seeing it here on a stopover during its northern migration.

Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus)

More about them: Wikipedia Cornell Audubon In Chavez Park

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One thought on “The Long and the Short of It

  • April 29, 2021 at 7:43 pm
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    We saw what looked like a thousand scaups in the north cove. What a surprise!

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