Sunday, 27 September 2009

Long-Billed Dowitcher, Chew Valley

Long-billed Dowitcher

This American wader just happened to me. BirdGuides had listed it a few days back but I'd thought no more about it until I stopped at Herriott's Bridge this afternoon as part of my standard route round the lake. I was only in the area looking at a room to rent in Chew Stoke, which pretty much has to be a birder’s dream. Fingers crossed on that one.

A gaggle of telescopes at the lay-by told me something was up, so I hauled mine out of the boot and joined them. I picked up the muttering of “long-billed dowitcher” and then remembered the earlier report.

Among half-a-dozen snipe the stranger was easy to separate. But was it a dowitcher? I've seen long-billed dozens of times in California and short-billed often enough, and generally separated them by habitat. By default the long-billed occupied the Bay Area while shorties were more coastal. I guess I even got quite lazy about that because it’s nowhere near a hard-and-fast rule.

Certainly the length of the bill is little use in identifying them, so I’m continually amazed when British birders confidently announce one or the other. I used to have the greatest difficulty with them. So, here's the British trick: if you’ve got a dowitcher, which is rare, it’s long-billed. Short-billed is a mega; the last certain sighting was back in 2005.

Still not sure whether I was looking at the right bird, I decided to play a game of sketching what I did see. Here in words is what I came up with: surprisingly similar size and build as the snipe; grey head and breast with darker cap and possible eyebrow; a slight gap between the breast and coverts/scapulars – rather like a common sandpiper; black-spotted grey coverts under black-spotted rufous scapulars, then back to black-spotted grey on the mantle; and a kind of weird, splayed tail-feather configuration. Google Books shows typical shorebird topography for these terms if you scroll down a little. I had to use it.

The spotting on the feathers signifies a juvenile at this time of year, as do the rufous fringes, so I got those bits right. I’m not too sure what was going on with the tail though! The rest of the description is pretty much spot-on for any dowitcher.

Sketching, in my case just ovals and lines (you should see the tiny head on my effort!), is something I should do more. Again, I tend to get lazy. But not this time, not for my 278th British (sic) bird. Surprisingly it did nothing for the year list: good old Shoreline at Mountain View, CA gave me one back in March. Or was it short-billed? Ha! I don't know. However, this afternoon did push the year list on to 575, thanks to my first water rail – so late in the year. I could reckon on getting to 600 since I have yet to see many of our common winter birds.

Did I mention that I was away last winter? I expect so.

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