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Lanny McDowell

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

First signs of molt – Dunlin & Black-bellieds

by Lanny McDowell on April 13, 2010

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These may all be birds that have been on Martha’s Vineyard over the winter … or not.  The Dunlin numbers seem about the same out on Katama Bay.  The BBPL numbers I think are  expanding.  In any case, both species are showing the beginnings of a molt into alternate plumage.  For the most part,this means just a few black belly or breast feathers replacing the basic winter ones.  Some Dunlin are appearing more red-backed than gray-brown.  Most are still rather dull.  Here & there you see a Black-bellied with a significant amount of black coming in, but that is still the exception.

These birds are feeding on the flats inside Katama Bay along the Norton Point area.

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Birds are cool!  Lanny

These images and Avian Art fine art prints are available for purchase. Contact me or View my gallery.

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There are some simple reasons I can’t stay away from watching and photographing purples this time of year.  Firstly, they are here on the Vineyard and fairly uncommon most other places.  I know where to find them when I want to, usually up scouring the rocks at Squibnocket, because they are location loyal.  That’s about the habitat, which is the habitat that shows up in the bird photos below.  They are not always there, but they are likely to be there on a bright winter’s day.

The other factor that brings me back to find them is that they are relatively tame when feeding or resting, even with Stella at my side.  Stella is very respectful and patient when it’s clear that I am trying to move slowly or I’m waiting for the sandpipers to approach me as they move among the rocks. [click to continue...]

State of the Union at Global Conservation Alliance

by Lanny McDowell on February 15, 2010

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Here is an update on where we stand right now.  By the way, the new name for our shorebird project within GCA is The Red Knot Survival Project.

I was just reading about non-profits and who gives to them, who the supporters are.  Well it turns out that 75% of the money donated comes from private individuals.  That is pretty astounding, and also encouraging.  As of this writing, Global Conservation Alliance has received money donations from various individuals, from one corporate contributor and from one conservation organization donor.

GCA members have traveled to Delaware Bay to work there the last two years, in 2008 and 2009; and we anticipate going back this year.  Our target dates are May 22 until June 1st.  The full moon, when horseshoe crabs gather in the most dense numbers to lay their eggs, because the higher tides of the full and new moons take them further up the beach, occurs on the 27th of May this year, right in the middle of our stay.  Also, it happens that the historical departure date for Red Knots leaving en masse for the Arctic occurs on some afternoon between the 27th and the 29th of May. [click to continue...]