March 23, 2011
Bulletin #133 – Upper Texas Coast shorebird ID guide - spring migration
(Note - click on the images to see a full size photo)
The shorebirds comprise 4 families of birds in our area- 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. Both are found in Texas.
The American Avocet is a long legged tall (18") bird with gray head and neck (non-breeding), white body and black wings with a prominent white wing patch. The bill is upturned. Again, no other bird is similar. In breeding plumage, the head and neck become tan colored.
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 upcurved. No ID problem at all. The sexes are similar. The second photo shows the interesting facial pattern.
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 usually similar in 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 2nd photo. 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 (1st photo). Notice in the basic plumage that the face is grayish and nothing is distinctive. Compare that with the next species. 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 1st photo, a couple of black feathers are poking out under the wing. By mid-April, you may find one in the distinctive breeding plumage with the black belly as in the 2nd photo.
The last of the large (9.5 - 11") plovers is the American Golden Plover. It prefers short grassy fields. 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. A good location to see this bird is Rushing Park in Katy, Texas west of Houston. On the coast, the classic location on Bolivar is a cow pasture across from the Joy Sands Motel in Crystal Beach. I have also seen them in 2010 and 2011 on Yacht Basin Road, off Hwy 87, which is just west of Rollover Pass. Also, check at High Island as the guides there have often located them and can direct you to the location. They also lead tours to Bolivar area for shorebirds, so check at Boy Scout Woods for times.
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. This 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 yellow bills with black tips.
The Piping Plover has a light tan colored 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). It also has more black on the face including behind the eye.
The Mountain Plover is seen very rarely on the upper Texas coast, but I don't have a photo of it. I saw it once in 20 years of birding here.
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 striped head. It has 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. It is more of a winter bird than s spring migrant here.
Curlews are sandpipers with long downcurved bills and are an easy ID. There are 2 species seen here.
The Long-billed Curlew is our largest sandpiper at 23" in length. It has a very long (7") bill. It is buffy brown color and has cinnamon underwing as shown in the 2nd photo.
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 more 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 here. It is usually found in flooded rice fields, in spring, in the Anahuac and Winnie area. The male (1st photo) has ruddy breast and the female (2nd photo) 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.
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 (1st photo) have some dark streaking. It is a very loud bird and calls when startled. It has the brightest wing pattern (2nd photo) 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 a 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 (photo) is the brightest color and leaves the nest after laying the eggs. The male incubates the eggs 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 neck (no photo). Phalaropes may swim at times unlike other sandpipers.
The breeding (1st photo) 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 plumage (2nd photo) to highlight the orange legs. The facial pattern is muted, but still identifiable. This bird 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 belly. 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 dark back with small white spots. This is unique. It also has a prominent eye-ring and olive legs.
The Stilt Sandpiper (1st photo) 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 seen in the 2nd photo.
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. Again, Rushing Park in Katy is perhaps the best location to find this bird. It is an elusive bird for me as I have never seen it in Texas. This photo was taken in Carmel, CA where this bird is a real rarity.
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 (1st photo) is rufous on back and chest. The breeding female 2nd photo) 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. When once seen, this characteristic gait is instantly recognizable. But, even without that, the breeding plumage bird (1st photo) is the only sandpiper with spots on the breast. The non-breeding plumage (2nd photo) which may also be seen in the migration period has a plain brown back, yellowish legs and the white shoulder patch is the ID mark.
So now we come to the last 9 sandpipers 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 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 bill 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 Long-billed prefers fresh water to salt water. Also, the feeding flocks chatter incessantly among themselves, if you are close enough 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 (peeps) 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, Least and Western, are winter residents, but all 5 may 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 a winter resident.
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 usually this bird. It is 6.5 " in length.
The Semipalmated Sandpiper is similar to the western above, but grayer. The bill is shorter 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 some rufous on the gray back. Notice the red-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. It prefers dry mud flats to feed.
There are a few rare sanpipers that show up in spring, but the only one I have seen is a female Ruff near Anahuac in the 1990s. I sure hope that the breeding male Ruff shows up here sometime, as it is the most beautiful and unusual sandpiper. Here is a photo of a male Ruff displaying that I took in Alaska, just to spark your interest.
I hope that you find this shorebird guide helpful to you. Get out and enjoy the birds this spring!
All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.
Happy birding and photography,
photos copyright 2006-2011 David McDonald
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