Thursday, August 14, 2008

Shorebird Identification Tips - Part 1 of 4

It’s that time of year again; fall shorebird migration is in full swing throughout the entire country. If you are lucky to live near some great shorebird habitat, you can observe them every day during migration. If not, it may seem impossible to identify a shorebird other then Killdeer. While field experience is very important when identifying some of the drab adult shorebirds that come through in the fall, it is essential to be prepared before you go out “shorebirding”.

Before you will be able to tackle every shorebird identification, you need to know the basics. Identifying shorebirds is unlike identifying any other family of birds. While trying to identify warblers for instance, you focus more on plumages then you do on body shape and size. With shorebirds, body shape and size are among the most important identifying aspects in the identification process. The first time you see a particular shorebird species, it seems like there are endless possibilities on the identification. If you start noticing the shape and size of the bird, your identification skills will greatly increase.

Common Shorebird Species - Shapes and Sizes
*When "relative" is used it is referring to size in comparison to body size

Large Plovers: Small to medium-sized shorebirds with short necks and fairly small bills. These long-winged and fairly long-legged shorebirds are similar to a Killdeer in size and shape.

Small Plovers: Small shorebirds with short necks and long legs relative to their body size. All small plovers have short wings and are compact in shape. The bills are smaller and stubbier than any other shorebird species.

Wilson's Plover


Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpiper: These elegant shorebirds are very long legged with relatively long bills. They have long necks and long wings which gives the impression of a very large shorebird.

Curlews: Large shorebirds with long legs and a long neck. Curlews are the only shorebirds with a very long decurved bill.

Godwits: Large shorebirds with long legs and a long neck. Godwits have very long up-turned bills.

Large Peeps: These fairly small shorebirds have relatively long legs and a short decurved bill. The large peeps have very long wings that project past the tail when they are not flying.

Small Peeps: Small shorebirds with short slightly decurved bills. They have fairly short wings with medium length legs and look plump overall.

Dowitchers: Medium to large-sized shorebirds with long straight bills. Dowitchers are stocky overall with relatively short legs.

Phalaropes: These small shorebirds are very slight and slender. Phalaropes have fine bills with relatively long wings.

Wilson's Phalarope


If you use these basic guidelines you will be able to limit the number of identification possibilities when viewing a shorebird. The more prepared you are to identify shorebirds the more fun you will have while watching them. All shorebirds are unique and interesting and by taking time to observe these gems you will be able to observe many behaviors shown by no other birds.

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