Shorebird 101: part 1

By Tyler Stewart
Photography by Shari McCollough and Jeff Timmons
(originally printed in the IAS Facebook Discussion Forum)

One group of birds that many birders, new and old, struggle with is shorebirds. There are many different species and often only subtle differences are used to tell them apart from one another. We are going to try to make the task of “shorebirding” less daunting and more enjoyable! Several of us have teamed up to put together an IAS series on shorebird identification, where we hope to tease out some of the intricacies of identifying some of our trickier birds to ID. So we should first talk about what to look at when trying to identify a shorebird.

The first thing to ask yourself is whether or not your bird is a “piper” or a “plover.” This can be done based on morphology and behavior. Sandpipers will generally have a longer appearance, longer and tapering bill, and smaller appearing eyes. They are also active “tactile” feeders, meaning you will often see them with their heads down actively poking away at substrate trying to glean food. Plovers are generally more squat in appearance, will have shorter and stubbier bills, and larger appearing eyes. They are more “visual” feeders, and you will often see them with their heads up running around from one place to the next.

Consider habitat and time of year. How deep is the water where the bird is feeding? Is this bird going to be present now or is it generally too early or too late for this species? Behavioral cues can help too, such as feeding stance. How is it feeding?

Finally look at the bird for what it is. What color are the legs? What about the bill length? Does the bill droop at the tip? Are the bird’s sides barred or streaked? Is the back spotted or scaled in appearance? At first this may seem like a lot of information to take in, but it isn’t that bad! We hope to walk through the species you are likely to encounter here, and provide tips and tricks for identifying those pesky shorebirds!  Let’s make some of these pesky birds a little less intimidating and prepare ourselves for the upcoming shorebird migration, because they are on their way!

Wilson’s Snipe
Let’s start off our Shorebird Series with a shorebird that sometimes never leaves and is often the first reported species of shorebird annually. Wilson’s Snipe is a pretty common species in the state and is often overlooked. Many of my encounters with this species have often resulted with me jumping and cussing as several flush from wet meadows just feet in front of me. They rarely feed in the open and are often tucked well into or along vegetation along the edges of streams, marshes, and ponds. Anywhere with a mudflat and vegetation will likely support them. During migration, you can see these birds feeding in and around flooded fields or puddles, often blending into sedges or corn stubble. We know where to look, but what are we looking for, exactly?

Just take one look at this bird and it’s easy to see how many birders of all skill levels can overlook this bird. The Wilson’s Snipe is a “dumpy Sandpiper with short legs and a very long bill” according to Audubon, and is very well camouflaged to fit into it’s preferred surroundings. One field mark I always look for is the series of straw-yellow stripes running lengthwise down the back of this bird. Those also help it blend into stalks and stubble. The bird will also have a series of vertical barring along it’s flanks or side which contrast against it’s white belly. If you are viewing this bird from the front, you will see more straw-yellow lines running lengthwise along the top of the bird’s head, and a spotted, smudgy browish-yellow breast. If you are lucky enough to see one, they will prove to be excellent subjects, as they often remain motionless, relying on their camouflage for protection.

Can you find:
– Long, thick bill 
– Barring along the sides 
– Straw-yellow stripes down back 
– Lengthwise stripe running down head 
– Spotted breast, smudgy brown-yellow neck 

American Woodcock
Let’s look at another shorebird species that is commonly encountered here in Indiana. Though rarely seen, the American Woodcock is often heard on spring evenings. It’s signature “Peent!” is a great way to find these birds along paths going through grown up fields and grasslands. These birds are sandpipers of the eastern woodlands and often remain well concealed on the forest floor. At dusk, they take to the air in grassy fields, peenting and flying to attract mates. On the rare chance you encounter an American Woodcock, here is what to look for!

This bird looks like it is made of spare parts. It’s a chunky and round bird with short legs and neck, overly long bill, flat head, and large oddly-placed eyes. These birds have a pumpkin colored belly, grayish lines on their backs, and a series of black blocks on their heads.

Can you find:
– long bill ✅
– flat head ✅
– large, oddly-placed eyes ✅
– Pumpkin colored belly ✅
– Camouflaged back with gray lines ✅
– Black blocks on head ✅

Today I wanted to focus on our two Yellowlegs species, which can be a pain to separate from one another. It may be best to first consider “what is a Yellowlegs?” before delving into the ways we can tell them apart from one another. They are two of the four “Tringa” sandpipers (the other two species being the Solitary Sandpiper and Willet) annually seen in Indiana. “Tringa” sandpipers all share some similar features, including rather long and skinny necks, bills, and legs along with grayish-brown overall coloration and black and white speckling. Yellowlegs take this a step further and sport their namesake bright yellow legs (both other species have green legs). They will also show streaking along the head and neck, short barred tails, and white rumps in flight. A great clue that you have Yellowlegs in flight is the combination of white rump, light underwing, and legs extending past the body.

Lesser Yellowlegs

So we have a Yellowlegs sandpiper. How do we tell the difference between Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs? Well, that’s a tricky subject, something even the most experienced birders still occasionally get wrong. Lesser Yellowlegs are aptly named, as they are generally smaller than their close relative. Their bill is also shorter and thinner, only slightly longer than the head. Often, Lesser Yellowlegs can show more muted markings on the breast and belly than Greaters. Their call is shorter as well, only giving a “tu-tu” instead of a “tu-tu-tu” given by Greaters.

Behavioral characters can help you make identifications here as well. Lesser Yellowlegs tend to migrate a little later in spring and earlier in fall than the Greater Yellowlegs. They also often occur in larger numbers and in shallower water and smaller ponds.

Greater Yellowlegs

By contrast, Greater Yellowlegs have longer, thicker bills that may look upturned. They are larger in size. Also GreaterYellowlegs may show more heavier markings on the breast and belly than Lessers. Their call is another note longer as well. Behaviorally, they migrate earlier in the spring and later in the fall. They often occur in smaller numbers and venture out a little deeper than their smaller counterparts.

Let’s have a look at some photos and see if we can find our differences. First of you’ll notice all of these birds are Yellowlegs because they have:
– long skinny necks 
– gray-brown bodies, black & white spots 
– long bright yellow legs (trailing in flight)
– short barred tails and white rumps 
– lighter underwings 

Remember Lesser Yellowlegs:
– prefer shallower water 
– thinner bill, slightly longer than head 
– smaller in size  (only use in mixed groups)
– markings on breast and sides are generally muted or less extensive 

Remember Greater Yellowlegs:
– often wade into a bit deeper water 
– thicker bill, obviously longer than head 
– larger in size  (only use in mixed groups)
– markings on breast and sides are generally darker or more extensive 

Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs for comparison. Photo by Mark Welter.


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