LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER PICTURES FOR TWITCHERS


Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER PICTURES FOR TWITCHERS

It’s about 3 years since I featured dowitchers. There are two types, short-billed and long-billed. They are disconcertingly similar, especially if you are only looking at one bird with no comparator. However, on Abaco a good rule of thumb is that if you see a dowitcher it will almost certainly be a SBD, a common winter resident. The LBD is a rare visitor to the Northern Bahamas. And if you just happen to be wrong? Well, so might anyone else be…

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

I’m returning to the topic because recently Erika Gates, well-known bird authority and guide on Grand Bahama, took some excellent photos of some LBDs, and has kindly let me feature them. These birds are very unusual on Abaco, not least because they prefer fresh water rather than brackish, which is in short supply on the island and cays.

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

 Phoenix Birder / Xeno Canto

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

HOW DID THE DOWITCHER GET ITS NAME?

I had assumed that the strange name for these birds was onomatopoeic, in the same way that a Killdeer is supposed to call “Kill…Deer”; and a Bobwhite, an interrogative “Bob…White?”. When I tried to check this online, I found that the usually valuable primary sources for bird info were silent on the topic. In the end, I tracked down a Merriam Webster entry that simply said “probably of Iroquoian origin; akin to Oneida tawístawis. First Known Use: 1841”. Me neither!

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

LONG OR SHORT – HOW ON EARTH DO I TELL? 

1. HELPFUL(ISH) WAYS

  • On Abaco, if you see a Dowitcher the overwhelming likelihood is that it’s a SBD
  • The species prefer different habitats, with the LBS preferring freshwater even in coastal regions
  • The SBD prefers coastal areas, shorelines and brackish / muddy ponds
  • The SBD’s call is said to be “mellower” than the LDB – though unless you have heard both for comparison, that’s not a very useful identifier
  • The body shapes are apparently subtly different, in ways I can only begin to guess
  • In breeding plumage, the species have perceptible colour / pattern differences (if you have binoculars?)

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

 2. CONFUSING / UNHELPFUL FACTORS
  • LBDs may occasionally join SBDs that are foraging on open tidal flats
  • Bill length may not help, there’s an overlap – some SBDs may have longer bills and vice versa.
  • There are theories about bill-length / head size comparison as a field ID method. Do they work? Only if you get it right, I guess.
  • “Winter plumage of both species is very similar” (grey). Both are only in the Bahamas in winter. So, not a lot of help.

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

DOES THE DOWITCHER HAVE ANY PRACTICAL APPLICATION?

Yes! In Scrabble you can form a stonking 315 words from just those 9 letters, all permitted under Scrabble rules (though not my own house rules, which forbid ridiculous 2 and 3 letter words that sound invented for the purpose of winning at Scrabble). Apart from the full 9 letter original, there’s one 8 letter word – ‘witherod’, a type of viburnum plant; and 13 words of 7 letters, of which I’d say 8 are in common though not everyday usage. I’ll leave you to work out the remaining 301 words…

Credits: Erika Gates, with many thanks for use permission; the excellent Xeno Canto / Phoenix Birder for the sound file

PIPING PLOVERS ON GRAND BAHAMA (for a change…)


Piping Plover, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

PIPING PLOVERS ON GRAND BAHAMA (for a change…)

I used to go on a bit about piping plovers*, because they are so special. Rare. Endangered. Creatures rewarding observation, and deserving research and conservation. Most of all, they favour the Bahamas for their winter migration destination.  The islands – especially Abaco, Grand Bahama and Andros – provide a safe and unspoiled habitat for them in winter. The photographs shown here are piping plovers taken on Grand Bahama in early September by well-known birding guide Erika Gates, who has kindly given me use permission.

Piping Plover, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

These days, ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH diverts PIPL from these pages to a dedicated Facebook page. Now in its 3rd season, useful data is being collected for the research teams in the breeding grounds in North America by volunteer beach monitors**. Some are regular, some are occasional, some are one-off reporters: all contribute to the overall picture. In particular we are able to identify individual banded birds and track them back to their summer locations.

Piping Plover, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

WHAT USE IS THAT?

Almost every banded bird resighted this season is a returner to exactly the same beach as before. Some are here for their third or even fourth year. These tiny birds are therefore surviving a journey of between 1000 and 2000 miles each autumn and again each spring – and locating their favourite beaches with unerring accuracy. A few are resighted en route during their migration; often we get reports of their nesting and breeding news during the summer.  Their little lives can be pieced together.

Piping Plover, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

AND THE CONCLUSION TO BE DRAWN?

The summer breeding grounds generally have conservation programs that help to protect the nesting birds from danger and disturbance. Those are the most vulnerable weeks for the adults and their chicks. The arrival of the plovers each autumn on Grand Bahama, Abaco and elsewhere in the Bahamas demonstrates their ‘beach fidelity’. They are confident that the beaches offer a safe and secure winter habitat where they are left alone. And when the time comes in Spring, they will be ready to make the long journey north again for the breeding season.

Piping Plover, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

* uncouth reader “you certainly did…

** additional volunteers welcome! If you walk a beach once a fortnight or even a month, own a piece of paper & a pencil, can count, and ideally have a camera or even a phone, you too can be a citizen scientist!

Photo credits: all photos, Erika Gates, with many thanks. Erika’s related websites are