Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bulletin #72 - Upper Texas coast shorebird ID primer

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
March 18, 2009

Bulletin #72 – UTC shorebird ID primer

Hello friends,

The shorebirds comprise 4 families of birds - Oystercatchers, Avocets & Stilts, Plovers, and Sandpipers. The first three are easy. It is the last one that gives people fits. However, in spring the sandpipers are in their breeding (alternate) plumage can be sorted out.

There is only 1 Oystercatcher on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

The American Oystercatcher is a large (17-21") bird with black head, brown back, white belly and bright red bill. This ID is easy. This unfortunate bird has some fishing line wrapped around his right foot.

There are 2 members of the Avocet and Stilt family in the USA.

The American Avocet is a long legged tall (18") bird with tan head and neck, white body and black wings with a prominent white wing patch. the bill is upturned. Again, no other bird is similar.

The Black-necked Stilt is a very long pink legged wader about 16" tall. it is a classy black and white pattern. The black bill is slightly upcurver. No ID problem. The sexes are similar. the bird is on the left and the facial detail on the right below.

There, we are 1/2 done with the shorebird families - too easy. LOL

The next family is the Plovers. We can divide them into larger (> 9") and smaller (8" or less) birds. They are generally plump with short thick bills. The sexes are similar color.

The first is the easiest. The Killdeer is a 9-11" brown bird with white underparts and 2 black chest bands. The tail is rufous when it flies or fans it as in the photo on the right below. You can find this bird on beaches, mudflats or short grassy fields. It is a permanent resident.

The Black-bellied Plover is a winter resident and the largest of our plovers at 11-13". In the winter and spring, you usually find the non-breeding (basic) plumage as on the right below. By mid-April, you may find one in the distinctive breeding plumage as on the left below. Notice in the basic plumage on the right that the face is grayish and nothing is distinctive. Compare that with the next bird. You usually find this bird on seacoast, but can find it in fields at times. When they fly, you will see a black axilla (armpit). In the photo on the right below, a couple of black feathers are poking out under the wing.

The last of the large (9.5 - 11") plovers is the American Golden Plover. It prefers short grassy fields to beaches. They migrate through very early on their way to Alaska breeding grounds (from early March to early April) and thus are seen in the basic plumage only on the Texas coast. Notice the shorter, thinner bill than on the Black-bellied Plover. Also, look at the face with the black stripe through the eye and white line above. It can be seen at a distance as in the photo on the right below. A good location to see this bird is Rushing Park in Katy, Texas west of Houston.

The 4 small plovers all have a single black breastband either complete or partial. But the easiest way to sort them out is leg and back color.

The Wilson's Plover has flesh colored legs and a thicker bill. The leg color is unique. The breast band is complete and wide.

The Snowy Plover is the palest color of the group, but has gray-black legs and the dark patch behind the ear. The dark legs are unique. The breast band is only partial.

The next 2 birds both have yellow legs and bills with black tips.
The Piping Plover has light tan back (color of dry sand). Notice there is no black spot behind the ear.

The Semi-Palmated Plover has a darker brown back (color of wet sand).

The Mountain Plover is seen very rarely on the upper Texas coast, but I don't have a photo of it.

So now we come to the sandpipers. I will start with the ones that are unique and easy to ID and then work towards the rest of them. The sexes are generally similar coloration except as noted.

The Wilson's Snipe is an 11" shorebird that is has a dark brown back with longitudinal tan stripes and a long bill. It will be found in muddy areas and tends to be secretive and not seen until flushed. I took this photo at Anahuac NWR in spring 2008.

A similar shaped dumpy sandpiper is the 11"American Woodcock. It prefers wooded areas and forages in the leaves. It is very secretive and I have only ever seen it once. I have no photograph, so look at your field guide.

2 sandpipers are curlews. These birds have long downcurved bills and are an easy ID.

The Long-billed Curlew is our largest sandpiper at 23" in length. It has a very long bill. It is buffy brown color and has cinnamon underwing as shown in the photo below right.

The other curlew is the Whimbrel. It is still a large bird at 17.5" in length, but smaller than the bird above. It is gray brown, but is IDed by the striped top of head along with the downcurved bill.


The sandpipers with upcurved bill are called godwits. We also have 2 species of those on the upper Texas coast.

The most common by far is the Marbled Godwit. It is 18" in length and buffy brown color. It is a winter resident as well as being present during the spring. It has a long bicolored upcurved bill. Unmistakable.

The other godwit is the smaller Hudsonian Godwit. It is 15.5" in length and a very rare bird. It is usually found in flooded rice fields in spring in the Anahuac and Winnie area. The male (below left) has ruddy breast and the female (below right) is gray. They also have a long bicolored upturned bill. To locate this bird, check with the information desk at Boy Scout Woods at High Island. the guides have usually located them and you can drive there to see them. This is how I got these photos in 2008.

Now lets look at several sandpipers that have unique coloration or features that make them easy to ID in breeding plumage, as will be seen during spring migration. We will work from larger to smaller.
The very common Willet is the largest gray (15") sandpiper to be encountered on the upper Texas coast. In winter it is just a soft gray, but the summer birds (below left) have some dark streaking. It is a very loud bird and calls when startled. It has the birghtest wing pattern (below right) of any local sandpiper. You will see in Sibley, that there are 2 differing populations. the summer birds here are the eastern subspecies. However, they leave in the fall and the western subspecies arrives to winter over. These 2 subspecies may eventually be split, but as for now, even the IOU still regards them as a single species.

The Upland Sandpiper is an 12" sandpiper of grassy fields where it might be seen sitting on a fence post. it is beige backed and pale breasted with yellow legs and short yellow bill tipped with black. the head is small and face pale with a large dark eye.

The Red Knot is a large (10.5") plump short billed bird with a red breast and greenish legs. No other sandpiper has a red breast and short bill.

The Wilson's Phalarope is the largest of the 3 phalarope species at 9.5". It is essentially the only one of the 3 that occurs on the upper Texas coast. Unlike other birds, the female (left) is the brightest color and leaves the nest after laying the eggs. the male incubates th eeggs and feeds the young. The ID is the overall gray bird with needle like bill, black on face and neck and rufous stripes on the back. The male is very plain with just a little rust color on the nack. Phalaropes may swim at times unlike other sandpipers.

The breeding Ruddy Turnstone is a plump 9.5" long sandpiper with rufous back, black and white patterned head and neck and orange legs. I added the non-breeding (basic) plumage on the right to highlight the orange legs. The facial pattern is muted, but still identifiable. This is a winter resident here.

The Pectoral Sandpiper is 8.75" long. It has a streaked breast with a sharp demarcation of the clean white belly. The legs are yellow.

The breeding Dunlin (8.5") is an easy ID with the reddish back and large black patch on the blly. No other sandpiper has a black belly in the east. Notice the bill droops a little at the tip. This is an important mark for winter birds.

The breeding Solitary Sandpiper is also 8.5". it has a dak back with small white spots. This is unique. It also has a prominent eye-ring and greenish legs.

The Stilt Sandpiper (below left) is also 8.5". The books show it to be more darkly barred than it appears in the field. The important field mark is the brown on the face and white eye-stripe above. It has dull yellow-green legs. It feeds like a dowitcher and may entirely submerge its head as in the photo below right.

The next easy sandpiper to ID is the Buff-breasted Sandpiper. It is a 8.25" long with short bill and completely buffy brown underparts. No other small shorebird is like this. It may be found on beaches or short grassy fields.

The Sanderling is an active 8" sandpiper that is best identified by its feeding habit of running out with the retreating wave and then running back onto the beach with the next wave. The breeding male (below left) is rufous onback and chest. The breeding female (below right) is grayer. Once you have seen these birds in action feeding, you won't forget it. It is a winter resident here and very common.

The last of the readily identifiable sandpipers is the 7.5" Spotted Sandpiper. It has a characteristic 'teetering' gait in which it looks like it is about to fall over. Again, when seen, it is instantly recognizable in the future. But, even without that, the breeding plumage bird(left below) is the oly sandpiper with spots on the breast. The non-breeding plumage (right below) which may also be seen in the migration period has a plain bron back, yellowish legs and the white shoulder patch is the ID mark.

So now we come to the last 9 birds that are the ID challenges. These are the 2 yellowlegs, 2 dowitchers and 5 peeps or small sandpipers.

Both yellowlegs have bright yellow legs.

The Greater Yellowlegs is taller at 14" in length. It has a longer bill that appears to be slightly upturned. This is the best ID mark.

The Lesser Yellowlegs is 10.5" in length. The bill is shorter and straight. These size variations are no help if no other bird is around for a size comparison, so look at the bill shape.

The dowitchers are essentially the same length and although they are called short-billed and long-billed, there is overlap in the length, so we have to use other ID characteristics.

Here is the Long-billed Dowitcher (LBDO). The plumages are essentially the same, so we have to look at other attributes that can lead us to the correct ID. The LBDO prefers fresh water to salt water. Also, the feeding flocks chatter incessantly among themselves, if you are close enou8gh to hear them. The last item is the most important, the shape of the back of the bird, when they are bent over to feed.

Look at the bird in the black circle, the body forms a complete circle, as the back has a high arch when the bird is bent over. This ID point can be seen from far away.

Here is the Short-billed Dowitcher. The coloration is about the same. The differences from the Long-billed include it prefers salt water, and the flock is silent when feeding. Importantly, although I don't have a photo in the feeding position is that the back is almost flat or straight across rather than the high arch in the Long-billed.
So, an easy way to remember this is 4S. The Short-billed likes Salt water, is Silent and has a Straight back.

The 5 smaller sandpipers can be sorted out. 1 has yellow legs and the other 4 have dark legs. Look at length of wings, as the 2 birds that migrate the longest distance have wing tips that extend beyond the tail. Only 2 of these are winter residents, but all 5 ay be seen during spring migration.

The Least Sandpiper is the smallest sandpiper in the world at 6" in length. It is the one with the yellow legs, so can be IDed easily. It is also one of the 2 winter residents.

The breeding Western Sandpiper has black legs, rufous on crown, face and wings. Notice the droop at the end of the bill. It is the other winter resident, so a peep in winter with dark legs is this bird. It is 6.5 " in length.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper is similar to the western above, but grayer. the bill i sshorter and straight. It is 6.25" in length. It is listed as uncommon in spring.

The White-rumped Sandpiper is larger at 7.5". it is one of the long distance migrants and the wings can be seen to extend beyond the tail. It has streaked flanks and black legs. with som rufous on the gray back. Notice the brown spot on the base of the lower mandible. This is diagnostic, if it can be seen.

I don't have a photo of the last peep, the Baird's Sandpiper. However, it is also larger at 7.5" and has wings extending beyond the tail. There is no streaking along the flanks and no brown spot on the lower mandible.
No other shorebirds are regularly seen on the upper Texas coast. If one does show up, it is on the rare bird alert.

I hope that you have found this shorebird discussion to be of benefit. I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations. I will add photos of the missing birds to the discussion when I get them.

Also, if you found this guide helpful, I would appreciate if you would join or make a donation to one of the following organizations, who help the birds with habitat preservation on the upper Texas coast and help us birders in so many ways. If you are already a member, join another or make a another donation. Thanks!
  1. Houston Audubon Society
  2. Gulf Coast Bird Observatory
  3. Friends of Anahuac NWR
  4. Armand Bayou Nature Center

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.
Happy birding and photography,

David McDonaldemail
photos copyright 2009 David McDonald
To have these trip reports sent to your email, please email me at the above address and ask for subscribe.

No comments: