Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Shorebird Primer: Godwits, Curlews, Willets and Whimbrels

For those of us living in the Great Central Valley, autumn is the time to head to the coast.  Of course, there is no bad time to visit California's magnificent coastline.  But as the heat and haze of summer drag on in the Valley, the sea becomes increasingly tantalizing: September and the onset of autumn bring sunny weather and an abundance of migratory seabirds and shorebirds to our coast.

A new birder visiting California's Central Coast will undoubtedly be met with a splendid array of very confusing birds.  Among these are small shorebirds like "peeps" (sandpipers), Sanderlings and various plovers.  But the larger birds can be just as confusing, until you learn a few distinguishing features. 

Four large shorebirds that are commonly seen (and commonly confused) along California's Central Coast are Godwits, Curlews, Willets and Whimbrels.

Marbled Godwit (upper left), Whimbrel (upper right), Long-billed Curlew (center front)

The distinguishing feature of the Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) is its bill: slightly up-turned and two-toned, grading from reddish at the base to black at the tip.  Godwits are often found in flocks, probing for food on sandy beaches and mudflats.

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit
 
The largest of our shorebirds, and sporting the longest bill, is the Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus).  An obviously long, down-curved bill is characteristic of the curlew.  These birds are often seen as solitary individuals, foraging on sandy beaches and mudflats.  In the winter, Long-billed Curlews are common visitors to the wetlands of the Great Central Valley.
  
Long-billed Curlew

Long-billed Curlew
 
Willets (Tringa semipalmata) are more often associated with the swash zone of sandy beaches (the part that is covered and uncovered by each wave), but they also feed on rocky shores and mudflats.  At first glance, Willets may look hopelessly gray and dull, but even that can be used to your advantage in making an identification.  The straight bill of the Willet is lighter at the base and darker at the tip.  The really striking field mark of the Willet is the black-and-white wing striping shown in flight.
 
Willet
  
Willet

Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) most closely resemble Long-billed Curlews, and they are in fact a type of curlew.  But Whimbrels show more pronounced striping on their heads and have a noticeably shorter down-curved bill.  Whimbrels favor mudflats, but are equally likely to be found on rocky shores and sandy beaches.

Whimbrel
 
Learn these four birds, and a birding trip to the coast will become much less intimidating!
 
Also check out a guide to small shorebirds (peeps, plovers and the like) of the coast here.
 
Note: The coastal area I visit most frequently is the Monterey Bay area, roughly from Sunset State Beach south to Point Lobos.  The photos here were all taken within that area, and my personal experience is based largely on this area.  Monterey Bay is special for a number of reasons, one of which being its high biodiversity.  Here, northern species of birds, plants, and intertidal creatures reach their southern limit, and southern species reach their northern limit.  It is an excellent place to visit as a naturalist!

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