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Vineyard Dowitcher ID

by Lanny McDowell on August 2, 2010

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If you want to delve  into the arcane business of confidently recognizing a Long-billed Dowitcher in the midst of short-billeds this time of year, and it’s still early, please go right ahead and let me know when you have a long-billed nailed down.  All the shorebird books take on this subject and, sort of like the fairly recent Gulls book, the more you read, the more confused and uncertain you are likely to become.  Less can be more.  Dump some of the plumage factors and go for structural comparison.  If you are lucky, really lucky, you will have one species beside the other and not a single bird, bill tucked and snoozing.

The reason for bringing this ID quandary (morass) to the fore is that I saw and photographed a dowitcher on July 29th out at the flats inside the opening of Tisbury Great Pond.  Its central tail feathers were rufous toward the tips, where the barring “should” have a white or light buffy color.  Most references do not mention this feature, but Paulson’s Shorebirds of North America does write about the rufous in the tail being an identifier for long-billed.

Well, in this case I do not happen to believe this, because in another shot taken of the same bird, the bill droops a bit in the last third of its length, which feature is mentioned as reliable for picking out a short-billed (versus a straighter bill for long-billed).  Since every set of comparisons for these two species seems to end up in the scrapheap of variability – except for voice, which all the writers embrace as distinctive – the tail feather ground color issue will be at home on the list of “may be a factor, but not reliable taken alone as a single distinguishing mark”.  In my book, anyway.

We all seem to want the elements that will offer us certainty, but like so many other BIG questions, sometimes the more you look, the less you know.  Not really fair, is it?

Check out the tail feather tips and the bill on this West Tisbury dow:

Dowicher showing rufous tipped rectrices

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Dows are Cool! Lan