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…
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.
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!
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?)
- 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