Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Shorebird Identification: The Basics

It’s that time of year again; fall shorebird migration is starting to spread throughout the entire country.  And with all of the dry conditions, odds are there is some shorebird habitat near you!  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 aspects in the identification process. The first time you see a particular shorebird species, it seems like there are endless possibilities on the identification but if you start noticing the shape and size of the bird, your identifications will come more quickly and accurately.

Common Shorebird Groups - 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

Once you have narrowed it down to one of these groups, the identification usually gets a bit more difficult but the number of options dwindle.  So, if you just want to take a guess at this point your odds are much greater of coming up with the correct identification! 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.

More shorebird identification posts are on the way!
To find a good shorebird identification book go to


No comments: