Dowitcher Identification

Birders notoriously find it difficult to tell Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers apart. I have got a request to do an identification explanation on them so here goes, I hope it will be helpful.

Short-billed Dowitchers and Long-billed look so similar. Using their habitat is helpful but not diagnostic. Short-billed Dowitchers tend to prefer Salt water and brackish water and Long-billed Dowitchers tend to prefer fresh water. However, I have OFTEN seen Short-billeds in freshwater and Long-billeds in brackish and salt water.

Therefore, DO NOT rely on habitat.

Another feature many people will tell you to rely on is spotting on the side of the flanks of Short-billeds and barring on the side of Long-billeds. Usually this is a mark that you can use but it is not always as distinct as you like. I have seen Short-billeds with a barred appearance to the flanks. It is only at the side of the breast where you have to look for this diagnostic feature for the spots on a Short-billed and the bars on a Long-billed.

Look at the photo below. Do you notice the SPOTS on the SIDE OF THE BREAST on this Short-billed Dowitcher?

Note the BARRING ON THE FLANKS. Always look at the side of the breast for the diagnostic feature.

See HERE for the photo.

VOICE

This is the most reliable tool for this species (ESPECIALLY IN NON-BREEDING PLUMAGE) as they sound very different from one another. Short-billed Dowitchers sound like "tu-tu-tu" when they call and Long-billed Dowitchers sound much higher pitchd than Short-billed and make a "Keek" sound.

Listen to the call of Short-billed HERE

Listen to the call of Long-billed HERE

Juveniles

For once, a species is easier to tell apart in Juvenile plumage! Juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers have tiger-striped tertials instead of plain gray ones.

See photo of a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher HERE

See photo of a juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher HERE

V-shaped lower coverts and lower scapulars

This is my favorite tool to use in breeding and worn-breeding plumage.

Short-billeds have much more of the white running up the sides of the feathers in comparison to Long-billed Dowitchers.

The lower coverts of Long-billed Dowitchers are more squared off, with the white not running up as high on the side of the feathers, as it does in Short-billeds.

See photo of the V-shaped lower coverts on a Short-billed Dowitcher HERE

See photo of the V-shaped lower coverts on a Long-billed Dowitcher HERE 

An Illustration of the difference in greater coverts of both species can be seen HERE 

Primary Projections 

Short-billed Dowitchers have the black tips of their primaries extending to the tail tip or just out past the end of the tertials; much more so than in Long-billed.

Note the primary projection in the photo of this Short-billed HERE.

General Appearance

Long-billed Dowitchers are much chunkier than Short-billeds they say. (I DO NOT FIND THIS TO BE A RELIABLE ID FEATURE). However, I do notice that Long-billeds tend to have thicker necks and larger heads than the slimmer necks of Short-billeds.

Short-billed Dowitchers  have a sort of eyebrow appearance, which is really an arched supercilium, while Long-billeds have a straight supercilium.

See a photo of the arched supercilium in a Short-billed Dowitcher HERE.

See a photo of the straight supercilium in a Long-billed Dowitcher HERE.

Short-billeds have a steeper forehead than Long-billeds.

Short-billeds appear more duller in their colour pattern with more of a brown and buff appearance, while Long-billed have more of a black, rufous and white pattern on the feathers of their back and wings

In Breeding Plumage look for white patches on the belly of the birds; this is USUALLY indicative of Short-billed Dowitchers.

Long-billeds have longer legs than Short-billeds but again, unless the two species are standing side by side this is a hard feature to use reliably.

The underbelly colour of Long-billeds are more of an intense red, while Short-billeds tend to be more orange on their underbelly. The red colour on the underbelly of Long-billeds extends to the undertail. Short-billeds have white vents (except for the prairie subspecies). So this is a good factor to use unless you live in an area with the Hendersoni subspecies. Hendersoni which we have in the prairies in Canada tend to have little to no spotting on their necks unlike on the pacific coast where both Short-billed and Long-billeds have neck spotting.

Feather tip fringe colour (Reliable for birds in fresh BREEDING PLUMAGE in the Spring)

Short-billed Dowitchers have orange fringes to the feathers on their breasts and flanks (sides) while Long-billed have white fringes to the feathers on their breasts and flanks (sides) This feature is pretty well diagnostic but you  have to be very close to see this feature. I find it is best seen in photographs, to be honest.

See a photo of the diagnostic white-fringed feathers on a Long-billed Dowitcher HERE.

See a photo of the diagnostic orange-fringed feathers on a Short-billed HERE.

Tail

Long-billed Dowitchers have longer tails than Short-billeds. The width of the black-and-white barring on the tail which you can see when the bird is in flight is also helpful. Long-billed Dowitchers have much more thick black bars in the tail than the white bars. Short-billed Dowitchers on the other hand, have much wider white bars, that are frequently as wide as the black bars. This can be VARIABLE, so be careful with this one.

See a photo of the barring on the tail of a Long-billed HERE.

See a photo of the barring on the tail of a Short-billed HERE.

The tail of Long-billeds usually appears turned up, while Short-billeds lack that feature.

In flight

Long-billeds have white underwing lesser coverts while Short-billeds have barred ones. You can only see this feature in flight.

See a photo of a Short-billed Dowitcher showing its barred underwing coverts in flight HERE

See a photo of a Long-billed Dowitcher showing it's white underwing coverts in flight HERE

Bill shapes and length

Short-billed Dowitchers have a thicker bill with a droop in the last part of their bill with a blunt tip to the end. Long-billeds have straighter thinner bills with a flat tip.

Bill length is not a reliable feature to use, even though you will hear "Long-billeds have longer bills than Short-billeds."

Non-breeding Plumage (USE VOICE)

I did not mention the subtle differences in plumage between Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers in non-breeding plumage, such as the pale chin and throats on a Short-billeds compared to the grey-chinned  and evenly gray-breasted Long-billeds. Long-billeds have mantle feathers that are gray with darker centres. Short-billeds have mantle feathers that are all the same gray colour. Long-billeds have a more bright white under eye-arc as well. I don't find the differences to look for in this plumage reliable enough because they are so hard to see in the field.

I find there is one diagnostic tool to use in this plumage that is not voice but you must see the bird in flight to see the feature of white underwing coverts for Long-billed and barred ones for Short-billeds. I truly feel that without that diagnostic feature, the best way to identify adults in non-breeding plumage is by voice alone.

Long-billed Dowitcher in Delta - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I hope this short tutorial was useful. My next identification post will be on Stints as per request.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the write up. I am looking through my old photos and trying to identify them with the new information. By the way, your book recommendation from your other article "Shorebird Guide" just arrived and looks like a great resource book for me...so much more information I can't find from the one page per bird guides. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Mario glad i could help and i'm glad you got the shorebird guide, you won't regret it! cheers :D

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  2. Great tips and detail, I've learnt a lot

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nice summary of a classic bird ID challenge. I'm sure many will find this helpful.

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  4. this post was really relevant to me because i was a reifel last week and saw a whole pile of dowitchers and could not figure out if i was looking at the short-billed or long-billed. they ended up being all long-billed except for one. thanks mel for your dedication in helping others. you refresh the birding community where i always felt some people didnt want to "dumb themselves down" for me.

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