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