(THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT…)
Long-billed (Limnodromus scolopaceus)? Or Short-billed (Limnodromus griseus)? Which one is that over there? No, not there. There! For Abaco, the answer is very easy. The SBD is a common winter resident, whereas the LBD is an occasional casual visitor, recorded rarely and irregularly in the Northern Bahamas. So if you are looking at a Dowitcher, it’s 98% certain that’s it’s an SBD. Which is lucky – they are so similar that telling them apart is a complex ID challenge, even if seen together! Until 60 years ago they happily existed as one species until the avian powers-that-be decided to prise them apart and award them separate species status. All the birds featured here are Abaco SDBs, with one exception… More on the comparisons and differences below.
The Dowitcher’s bill is an extremely effective instrument for probing deep into low water and mud. The rapid stabbing for concealed invertebrates has been vividly described as being ‘like a sewing-machine’. A ‘Dowitcher Stitcher’. So to speak.
HOW DID THE DOWITCHER GET ITS NAME?
I had assumed that the strange name for these birds was onomatopoeic, in the same way that a Killdeer is supposed to call “Kill…Deer”. And a Bobwhite, an interrogative “Bob…White?”. When I tried to check this online, I found that the usually valuable primary sources for bird info were silent on the topic. In the end, I tracked down a Merriam Webster entry that simply said “probably of Iroquoian origin; akin to Oneida tawístawis. First Known Use: 1841”. Which left me better informed, but no wiser…
THERE’S A BUNCH OF SHOREBIRDS OVER THERE – WHAT DO SBDs SOUND LIKE?
Phoenix Birder / Xeno Canto
In the header image, the bird is foraging in shallow water. In deeper water or with softer mud, SBDs will plunge their bills in to the hilt
SHORT OR LONG – HOW ON EARTH DO I TELL?
1. HELPFUL(ISH) WAYS
- On Abaco, if you see a Dowitcher the overwhelming likelihood is that it’s a SBD
- The species prefer different habitats, with the LBS preferring freshwater even in coastal regions
- The SBD prefers coastal areas, shorelines and brackish / muddy ponds
- The SBD’s call is said to be “mellower” than the LDB – though unless you have heard both for comparison, that’s not a very useful identifier.
- The body shapes are apparently subtly different, in ways I personally can only begin to guess
- In breeding plumage, the species have perceptible colour / pattern differences. (If you have binoculars?)
- LBDs may occasionally join SBDs that are foraging on open tidal flats
- Actual bill length may not help, there’s an overlap – some SBDs may have longer bills and vice versa.
- There are theories about bill-length / head size comparison as a field ID method. Do they work? As if!
- Winter plumage of both species is very similar (grey). Both are only on Abaco in winter. Go figure.
DOES THE DOWITCHER HAVE ANY PRACTICAL APPLICATION?
Yes! In Scrabble you can form a stonking 315 words from those 9 letters, all permitted under Scrabble rules (though not my own house rules, which forbid ridiculous 2 and 3 letter words that sound invented for the purpose of winning Scrabble). Apart from the full 9 letter original, there’s one 8 letter word – ‘witherod’, a type of viburnum plant; and 13 words of 7 letters, of which I’d say 8 are in common though not everyday usage. I’ll leave you to work out the remaining 301 words…
DO YOU HAVE ANY LBD PHOTOS TAKEN ON ABACO?
I surely do. Woody Bracey photographed a pair of dowitchers together on Abaco, one SBD and one LBD. But even though this looks a pretty straightforward comparison of bill length, colouring and marking, by now I’m now so confused that I’m beginning to wish the two species could be happily reunited into one…
Credits: Bruce Hallett, Tom Sheley, Woody Bracey, past researches, the usual bird info suspects