SEABIRDS, SHOREBIRDS & WADERS: 30 WAYS TO TELL THEM APART


Reddish Egret, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)12

Reddish Egret male in breeding plumage, Crossing Rocks, Abaco

SEABIRDS, SHOREBIRDS & WADERS: 30 WAYS TO TELL THEM APART

This weekend is Wader Conservation World Watch weekend, promoted by WADER QUEST. This is the perfect moment to help with the vexed question: “See that bird? Over there. No, THERE! Is it a seabird, shorebird or a wader?” 

Publication1

There is plenty of scope for confusion, since in practice there is a degree of informal category overlap and even some variation between the various bird guides. And after all, shorebirds may wade. And wading birds may be found on the shore*. Here is a reminder of 30 infallible rules to sort out which is which, courtesy of the estimable BEACH CHAIR SCIENTIST blog. 

*STOP PRESS Rick Simpson of Wader Quest has kindly added a comment pointing out the marked difference in the categorisation on either side of the Atlantic: “What you in the USA call shorebirds we here in the UK call waders (peeps, sandpipers, plovers oystercatchers etc – but not skimmers). Shorebirds to us can be any bird that lives on a shore, ie egret, herons, gulls. To add more confusion some seabirds such as Gulls, Skuas (Jaegers) Terns and Auks are also all in the group called Charadriiformes, not just the waders… er I mean shorebirds, or do I? [So] should any of you decide to participate in our world watch it is your shorebirds (but not skimmers) that we are interested in and we call them waders. Anyone want to know the rules of cricket? It is easier to explain!”

magnificent-frigatebird

10 CHARACTERISTICS OF SEABIRDS 

Ring-billed gull, AbacoRing-billed Gull (Nina Henry : DCB)

Examples include frigatebirds, petrels, shearwaters, gulls, terns and tropicbirds

1. Seabirds are pelagic, spending most of their lives far out at sea.
2. Seabirds move toward to coastal areas to breed or raise young for a minimal amount of time.
3. Seabirds are light on their undersides and dark on top (an adaptation known as countershading).
4. Seabirds have more feathers than other types of birds for more insulation and waterproofing.
5. Seabirds have flexible webbed feet to help gain traction as they take off for flight from the sea.
6. Some seabirds have unusually sharp claws used to help grasp fish under the water.
7. Some larger seabirds (e.g. albatross) have long, slim wings allowing them to soar for long distances without getting tired.
8. Some smaller seabirds have short wings for manoeuvering at the surface of the water.
9. Seabirds have specialized glands to be able to drink the saltwater and excrete salts.
10. Some seabirds (e.g. gannets) have a head shape that is usually tapered for more efficiency in plunge diving.

piping-plover

10 CHARACTERISTICS OF SHOREBIRDS 

Ruddy Turnstone, AbacoRuddy Turnstone Abaco Bahamas. 2.12.Tom Sheley copy 2

Examples include oystercatchers, turnstones, knots, plovers and sandpipers

1. Shorebirds have long legs, pointed beaks, and long pointed wings.
2. Most shorebirds are migratory (impressively some shorebirds fly non-stop for 3-4 days, equivalent to a human running continuous 4-minute miles for 60 hours).
3. Shorebirds wade close to the shore and poke their bills into the ground in search of food.
4. Shorebirds are small to medium size wading birds.
5. Shorebirds tend to frequent wetlands and marshes and are biological indicators of these environmentally sensitive lands.
6. Shore birds are of the order Charadriiformes.
7. Shorebirds are very well camouflaged for their environment and their appearance may vary from place to place as plumage (feather colors) are gained or lost during breeding.
8. Shorebirds typically range in size from 0.06 to 4.4 pounds.
9. Oystercatchers have a unique triangular bill that is a cross between a knife and a chisel.
10. The black skimmer is the only native bird in North America with its lower mandible larger than the upper mandible, which helps the bird gather fish as it skims the ocean surface.

roseate-spoonbill

10 CHARACTERISTICS OF WADING BIRDS 

Snowy Egret, Abaco
Snowy Egret ?NP_ACH1409 copy

Examples include egrets, herons, flamingos, ibis, rails, and spoonbills

1. Wading birds are found in freshwater or saltwater on every continent except Antarctica.
2. Wading birds have long, skinny legs and toes which help them keep their balance in wet areas where water currents may be present or muddy ground is unstable. Also, longer legs make it easier for them to search for food (forage) in deeper waters.
3. Wading birds have long bills with pointed or rounded tips (depending on what is more efficient for the types of food the bird consumes).
4. Wading birds have long, flexible necks that can change shape drastically in seconds, an adaptation for proficient hunting.
5. Herons have sophisticated and beautiful plumes (‘bridal plumage’) during the breeding season, while smaller waders such as rails are much more camouflaged.
6. Wading birds may stand motionless for long periods of time waiting for prey to come within reach.
7. When moving, their steps may be slow and deliberate to not scare prey, and freeze postures are common when these birds feel threatened.
8. Adult wading birds are quiet as an essential tool for hunting. Wading birds may be vocal while nestling or while in flocks together.
9. Many wading birds form communal roosts and breeding rookeries, even mixing flocks of different species of wading birds or waterfowl.
10. Wading birds fully extend their legs to the rear when flying. The neck may be extended or not while in flight, depending on the species.

Green Heron, AbacoGreen Heron, Gilpin Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)11

These lists were handily put together in useful chart formseabird shorebird wading bird chart ©beachchairscientist

Credits: Table – ©Beach Chair Scientist; Pics – Nina Henry (RBG), Tom Sheley (RUTU), Tony Hepburn (SNEG), Keith Salvesen (REEG & GRHE) ; Cartoons – Birdorable

11 thoughts on “SEABIRDS, SHOREBIRDS & WADERS: 30 WAYS TO TELL THEM APART

  1. Thanks for taking my comment in the spirit in which it was intended. You don’t have to be in the UK to join the Wader Conservation World Watch, we accept records from anywhere in the world, whether you call them waders or shorebirds, aves limícolas, aves playeras or any other name. Whatever you call them their conservation is at the heart of all we do, remember that waders need love too. Good luck and good birding.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hello, firstly thank you very much indeed for the mention of our Wader Conservation World Watch, we appreciate the publicity. If I may take a moment of your time to make a couple of comments here. The above article, which goes a long way to explaining this issue in the USA, does not unfortunately address the thorny question of the difference in usage of these words among different birding communities; the old ‘two peoples divided by a common language’ thing. What you in the USA call shorebirds we here in the UK call waders (peeps, sandpipers, plovers oystercatchers etc – but not skimmers). Shorebirds to us can be any bird that lives on a shore, ie egret, herons, gulls. Furthermore to add more confusion some seabirds such as Gulls, Skuas (Jaegers) Terns and Auks are also all in the group called Charadriiformes, not just the waders… er I mean shorebirds, or do I? Anyway, the only reason I am relating all this to you is that should any of you decide to participate in our world watch it is your shorebirds (but not skimmers) that we are interested in and we call them waders. Anyone want to know the rules of cricket? It is easier to explain!
    Rick Simpson

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rick, that’s an excellent point well made, and appreciated. In fact I have added a ‘Stop Press’ incorporating the nub of it. Although I am UK-based, the blog centres (or indeed centers) on Transatlantic antics – but yours is of course a World Watch, not a New World Watch! RH (ps talking of cricket, let’s not talk about cricket right now…)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We just LOVE this gorgeous, so very helpful post, RH! Not only wonderful photography, but also an excellent tutorial for us, quite new to bird watching. 🙂 This post will be saved and studied over and over again. Thanks for sharing.
    Wishing you a happy weekend,
    Dina co

    Like

    • Thanks to you Dina – but as Rick Simpson has helpfully pointed out in a later comment (now incorporated in the text), the rules of engagement in the UK are very different: ‘wader’ has a much wider meaning. So if you are currently scouring the North Norfolk coast for waders, please use Rick’s categories of ‘wanted’ species and not my USA-centric ones!!! Best to you both… all, I mean. RH

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I must admit, I didn’t know about the 🇬🇧 difference! Thanks for pointing this out. 😊 You are right, we’ re off to Blakeney now, through the marshes.
        Have a wonderful time,
        Dina

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dear RH,
        as I already mentioned, I saved the post, well, I have actually re-saved it now. 🙂 Klausbernd spotted the difference right away and said “waders are more than this in our reserve”. (No applause for this statement, after living in Cley for more than 30 years this kind of observations is a must.) 🙂
        -“So what is this more?”
        -“Roughly all the birds wading/walking in the reed beds and on the shore.”
        http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/birdguide/families/sandpipers.aspx

        This is complicated and the comparison with cricket ist hilarious and correct! 🙂

        It’s great at the reserve at the moment with many new departures and arrivals.

        All the best,
        Dina

        Like

      • I agree, Dina – the ‘cricket’ comment was a good point well made! Unfortunately demographic exigencies dictated that I confine my definition to the other side of the pond to avoid confusion! This must indeed be a great time of year on the N N coast. I enjoyed a visit to Titchwell a while back too. RH

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