Dowitchers - Short-billed or Long-billed?
Photos by Declan Troy on 21 July 2005 in Anchorage, Alaska.

See response below last photo

Photo 1: Are these adult Short-billed (subspecies caurinus) or Long-billed Dowitchers? 21 July 2005 in Alaska.


Photo 2: Are these adult Short-billed (subspecies caurinus) or Long-billed Dowitchers? Juvenile (top left) is probable caurinus. 21 July 2005 in Alaska.


Photo 3:  Front juvenile is Short-billed subspecies caurinus. Is center bird adult caurinus or adult Long-billed? 21 July 2005.


Posted to ID-FRONTIERS on 29 December 2005 by Ron Pittaway and Jean Iron. This post summarizes the circumstances leading to the discussion of the identity of the "adult" dowitchers photographed on 21 July 2005 near Anchorage, Alaska.

When these dowitcher photos from Alaska were sent to us we replied that the "adults" were Long-billed Dowitchers and gave our reasons based on several plumage characters. However, five Alaskan birders didn't agree, saying that they were adult caurinus Short-billed. That is why we posted the photos to ID-Frontiers to clarify their identity. Only a few people replied to our recent post on ID-Frontiers, but we got opinions offline from some well-known dowitcher experts. The geographical breakdown of those who said Short-billed versus Long-billed is interesting. Five birders from Alaska plus two from the Lower 48 and one from Japan said Short-billed. All the rest from the Lower 48 and Canada said Long-billed. To generalize, Alaskans said Short-billed while most birders outside Alaska said Long-billed. Those solidly in the Long-billed camp included Alvaro Jaramillo of California, Cin-Ty Lee of Texas, Kevin McLaughlin of Ontario, Steven Mlodinow of Washington State, and Joe Morlan of California. See their comments below. Another expert was uncertain, but he favored Long-billed. Perhaps Alaskan birders identified these dowitchers as Short-billed based on location, habitat and season because the caurinus subspecies breeds locally and it occurs commonly around Anchorage.

In addition to the previous e-mail we forwarded from Cin-Ty Lee, here are the field marks used to identify these Long-billed Dowitchers from four leading birders in alphabetical order:

1. Alvaro Jaramillo wrote, "I see both dowitchers in the photos. The adults are Long-billed, and then there is this bright and somewhat adult-looking juvenile in two photos. That bird is a Short-billed Dowitcher. The adults look like fine Long-bills to me, with the dark breast side patch that is typical at this time of year, very dark upperparts with thin bands on scapulars, extensive colour below, etc."

2. Kevin McLaughlin wrote, "Two species seem to be involved here. Photo #1 shows seven birds, all of them worn alternate Long-billed Dowitchers in my view. I have no experience with L.g. caurinus in the field but the birds look just like LBDs with extensive orange on the underparts, seeming to be darkening with wear, along with variable flank barring, dark scapulars with narrow white fringing, some scaps having a point down notch at the shaft. They also may be molting in the facial area and appear to have very short primaries, falling short of the end of the tail. Another feature evident in any shot in which the legs are fully visible are the long tibia. Photo #3 has an intruder in the foreground, a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher, which looks different from our hendersoni, looking duller below with narrower fringing on the upperparts and which can only be a juvenile caurinus. In photo #2 what is presumably the same juvenile L. g. caurinus looms in the left background. The features showing on the LBDs in photo #1 are shown in this shot and what is best shown in this photo is the prominent white lower eyelid, barely noticeable in the SBD. The mid-July timing of these two species being together may be an interesting reflection of their migration strategy. The appearance of a juvenile SBD consorting with a good number of adult LBDs would appear to make sense. I guess the adult caurinus would have already made their way farther south from Alaska by mid-July while the LBDs are still gathering and preparing to move."

3. Steven Mlodinow wrote, "These birds would automatically be called LBDO in WA (not that such makes the ID automatically correct!). Another feature which Karlson likes, and I've found valuable, is the perfectly straight bill in LBDO. Seen in profile, LBDOs really have an absolutely straight bill, whereas SBDO show a subtle droop. This can be seen in a few birds in the photos. I believe I've seen birds that do not conform to this rule, but I think it largely works."

4. Joe Morlan wrote, "All the adults look like Long-billed Dowitchers to me. They show salmon undertail coverts, dark upperparts, mostly dark tails, barring on the sides of the chest, and short primary projection. Some show the salmon color on the face contrasting with a pale gray post ocular spot which is good for Long-billed. Some show very long bills outside the expected range of Short-billed."

Ron Pittaway and Jean Iron

Toronto, Ontario