SHORT-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…
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 SBDs, and has kindly let me feature them.
Phoenix Birder / Xeno Canto
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 OR LONG – 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?)
- 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.
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