Monday, February 6, 2017

Peeps, Plovers, and Other Notoriously Difficult Shorebirds: Central Valley Edition

The following scene is a common cause of despair to many beginning birders: mixed shorebirds. 

They're small and brown, far away and flighty; they're all mixed together and most of them have their heads in the water.  So where to even begin?

What are these?  There are four species here:
 Greater Yellowlegs (in the back, blurry), Killdeer (with prominent black collar), Least Sandpipers (the smallest birds;
one is at the edge of the water toward the right of the photo), and Long-billed Dowitchers (the other brown birds!)

Initial despair can either bolster a birder's courage, causing him or her to rise to the challenge, or torment the beginning birder, allowing frustrations to give way to defeat.  Don't be defeated by shorebirds!  Rise to the challenge! 

Shorebirds are a tricky group to identify, but not entirely impossible.  I've been studying them recently, and would like to offer a few of my beginner's tips (as I am still in the beginning stages of learning shorebirds myself!)

Step 1.  Learn the basic shapes of different groups of shorebirds.

Don't rely heavily on color or markings, since most (if not all) of the shorebirds in California during the winter are in drab winter plumage rather than bright breeding plumage.  Usually the first or largest illustration in a field guide will be of a bird in bright breeding plumage, and not necessarily what you will see in the field in California.  (Good field guides will have illustrations of all plumages!)  Learn the shapes of the different groups of birds instead, including relative bill length and shape, leg length and body shape.  Figure out what makes a plover different from a sandpiper; separate the dunlins from the dowitchers. 

Cryptically-colored plover-shaped birds.  Any guesses? 
These are Black-bellied Plovers; the common name is completely unhelpful outside of the breeding season,
 the only time of the year that adult Black-bellied Plovers actually have black bellies.  So unless you're planning
a summer trip to the Arctic, expect to see this color pattern instead.

A note on size: It's difficult to get a sense of scale from most field guides; I had no idea how small sandpipers are (6 inches long) until I actually saw them in the field!  Remember that the size of one lone bird seen in the field can be deceptive.  But size is useful in the field when several species are seen together in a mixed flock.  When you can note the relative size of various species seen together, much larger or much smaller species become more obvious.

One lone Least Sandpiper: it's impossible to get a sense of size from this photo, as the bird by itself looks much
larger than it actually is.

Another Least Sandpiper, at right, seen here with a Killdeer for scale.  Now we begin to get a sense of relative size.
 For a third example, see the first photo in this post; the Least Sandpiper is the tiny bird at the edge of the water to the
 right, obviously much smaller than any other bird in the photo. 

Step 2.  Narrow down your options.
Once you have learned to recognize the basic shapes of shorebirds, you can go to the field guides to figure out which species are likely to be in the area at that time of year.  Note which plovers are likely to be seen in your location; do the same for sandpipers (those tiny, tricky, sparrow-sized shorebirds commonly lumped together as "peeps.")  Say you're in the Great Central Valley, in a wetland refuge with some open fields, some shallow water, some mudflats.  It's February (winter).  Flip through a couple of field guides and consult with eBird to get an idea of what you can expect to see (that's not cheating, I promise).  Hint: common species in the Valley during the winter include Least Sandpipers, Dunlins and Long-billed Dowitchers.  That plover-type bird is likely to be a Killdeer, but might also be a Black-bellied Plover.

Dunlins are a common shorebird in the Great Central Valley during the winter; they're larger than Least and Western
Sandpipers but smaller than dowitchers, with slightly down-curved black bills and black legs.  Oh, and they're also brown.

Step 3.  Learn the common species well.  Really well.

Once you've sorted out a handful of the most common species for a certain area and time of year, get to know those species really, really well.  After a little practice in the field with binoculars and maybe a camera or sketchbook, and some time spent at home looking through books and the internet for images and descriptions, you'll feel comfortable identifying a few previously confusing species.  You'll probably be able to pick out a Least Sandpiper or Dunlin every time!  Once you are familiar with the common species, it will be much easier to pick out the odd bird here and there that you don't know; you'll know when you see a bird that you don't recognize, maybe one that is a little less common for the area.  Then you can focus on one unfamiliar bird in a flock of known species, rather than be overwhelmed by the entire group of confusing birds.

Long-billed Dowitchers, more likely to be seen in the freshwater ponds of the Central Valley than their
 tidal flat-loving relatives, the Short-billed Dowitchers.

With a little practice, shorebirds will become less intimidating.  Start with a small handful of species common in your area, and gradually add more to your list of familiar faces.  Winter in the Great Central Valley is a good time and place to start learning.  My suggestions for brownish shorebird species to start with are plovers (Killdeer and Black-bellied Plovers, specifically), Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, Dunlins, and Long-billed Dowitchers. 

So there's your homework: five (okay, six) species of birds to become familiar with over the next month or so.  Happy birding!

Mixed shorebirds at sunset.  You no longer have to shy away from scenes like this one!

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