Identify shorebirds through the process of elimination

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
A black-bellied plover and a short-billed dowitcher look for food.
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Shorebird identification is challenging. So let’s see if we can make identification easier by tearing up a book.
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And now for the annual birding topic that my readers dread. Shorebirds. Everybody likes reading about backyard feeder birds and woodland songbirds. Most will tolerate stories about raptors and ocean birds. But shorebirds? Ugh.

Shorebird identification is challenging. You can find more than 30 species in Maine. Many look alike. Many don’t. Most are colored a boring shade of brown and gray. They’re often distant silhouettes on a mudflat. However, a significant proportion of the world’s shorebirds pass through Maine in late summer. They’re on the mudflats now, too many to ignore. So let’s see if we can make identification easier by tearing up a book.

I’ll tear up my copy of the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. It depicts 49 shorebirds. First, we’ll look at the range maps and rip out all the birds that are not in Maine. Goodbye mountain plover and long-billed curlew. We won’t be needing you.

Soon the list of possibilities is down to about 33. We can remove the birds that cannot be mistaken for anything else. Goodbye American oystercatcher and ruddy turnstone. We can eliminate shorebirds that don’t cluster at the seashore. Goodbye Wilson’s snipe, American woodcock and upland sandpiper. You, too, solitary sandpiper. Goodbye to all three phalarope species.

My book is getting thinner.

Next we can remove the plover pages. Plovers typically have shorter, stubbier bills than sandpipers. Only five species are normally seen in Maine. The lawn-loving killdeer is more likely to be seen at the Bangor Mall than the Lubec mudflats. Piping plovers prefer sandy beaches. So the semipalmated plover is usually the only small plover seen on mud. The larger black-bellied plovers are twice their size. Only the American golden-plover can be confused with them, and the goldens are not common, so let’s not worry about plovers for now. Rip these pages out.

Watch: How to spot purple sandpipers along the coast of Maine


My floor is now littered with 30 unneeded bird photos. Fewer than 20 are left, and I can quickly group the remaining birds by size: small, medium and large.

I lump five into the large category. They range in length from 12 to 18 inches. Willets stand tall, with long heavy bills. They appear uniformly gray. But when they fly, their wings are black with huge white stripes. They cannot be mistaken for anything else. Whimbrels have long, down-curved bills. Marbled and Hudsonian godwits have long, slightly up-curved bills. A few godwits show up in southern Maine, but they are rare in eastern Maine. I’ve ripped these pages out. We won’t miss them.

The greater yellowlegs is a large shorebird. It stands about 14 inches tall, dwarfing its cousin, the lesser yellowlegs, by 3 inches. Both have bright yellow legs, making them hard to confuse with other sandpipers, but they can easily be confused with each other. Note that the bill of a greater yellowlegs is about 1.5 times the length of the head and may seem slightly upturned. The bill of a lesser yellowlegs is about the same length as the head. Greater yellowlegs give a 3-note tu-tu-tu call. Lesser yellowlegs give a 2-note tu-tu. Got it? Good. Rip these pages out.

There are a bunch of small shorebirds running all over the mud. Look for birds that are slightly larger. Dowitchers are squat and pudgy, with absurdly long bills. My Sibley guide says there are two possibilities, but the long-billed dowitcher is rare here, so there’s a 99 percent chance you’re seeing a short-billed dowitcher. Remove these pages.

Red knots are the size of the black-bellied plovers, and often mix with them, but they are skinnier and stand more erect. They are red in spring but gray in autumn. The world population has crashed, but I still see them each fall. Hmm. Better leave that page in the book.

Sanderlings look small, but they’re bigger than the smallest birds on the mudflats. Their lighter color makes them stand out. Dunlin are the same size, but they are brown with long, down-curved bills, and they are the last shorebirds to migrate through. Neither is very hard to identify.

That leaves the troubling small ones, not much bigger than sparrows. Most of them on the mudflats are semipalmated sandpipers, but least sandpipers can also be numerous. The former have dark legs and appear grayish brown. The latter have yellow-green legs and appear browner. White-rumped sandpipers are slightly larger, but much less numerous. We’ll save these pages and leave that lesson for another time. My guide book is in shambles. Can I borrow some tape?

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

 



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