Short-billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus griseus

Short-billed Dowitcher, spring breeding plumage, 4/24/05, Palo Alto Baylands
Distinguishing Short-billed from Long-billed Dowitchers is hard, even when they are in fresh breeding plumage, as above, so that birders prefer to distinguish the species by call (a mellow "tu-tu-tu" for Short-billed, a high piercing "keek" for Long-billed) when they can. This bird has the overall look on the upperparts that is familiar in Long-billed: strongly contrasting white, black, and chestnut colors, rather than the muted brown and buff more typical of Short-billed and shown by the bird below. However it is a Short-billed, as an expert pointed out to me. A feature that is diagnostic or nearly so is an orange fringe of feather-tips on the breast and flanks, somewhat difficult to see, where the same tips are white and conspicuous on Long-billed, as here. Another nearly diagnostic feature is spots rather than bars on the side of the breast. A further persuasive mark is the v-shaped wing coverts on the side; the white (sometimes chestnut) edges continue up the side of the black centers, by contrast to Long-billed, where these edges tend to be confined to the bottom of the feathers. Finally, the tips of the primaries extend visibly beyond the end of the longest tertial, though not beyond the white-barred central tail feather, another supportive sign for Short-billed.

A note on spots and bars: both dowitcher species can have spots in the center of the breast and bars on the flanks; it is only at the side of the breast that the species are distinguished by spots for SB and bars for LB. The boundary between the center and side of the breast can be debatable, but in the bird above there are many spots and no bars at all in the relevant area.

Special thanks to Alvaro Jaramillo for his help with questions of dowitcher identification.

Short-billed Dowitcher, spring breeding plumage, 5/10/08, Radio Road, Redwood Shores, San Mateo Co
This dowitcher in fresh spring breeding plumage has the same two marks of Short-billed, diagnostic or nearly so, as the bird above it: spots (rather than bars) on the side of the breast, and orange (rather than white) feather tips fringing breast and flank feathers. In addition, this bird, by contrast to the one above it, has the characteristic Short-billed muted pattern of brown and buff (rather than black, white and chestnut) feathers on the wings and back. Further, this bird shows a pronounced extension of the black tips of the primaries beyond the tertials, forming a visible black spot at the rear end. Finally this dowitcher has no spots on the central breast and neck; all Long-billed Dowitcher have such spots. However, most Short-billed of the the Pacific subspecies (caurinus) also have spots in the central breast, as on the bird above this one. The clear breast is typical of the Prairie/Atlantic subspecies (hendersoni), and it is possible that this bird is an off-course hendersoni strayed to the Pacific coast.

Short-billed Dowitchers, spring breeding plumage, flying, 4/24/05, Palo Alto Baylands
The large white patches on the bellies of most of this flock of flying dowitchers in late April, when they are in breeding plumage, is a strong indicator that they are Short-billed. The one bird with an all-white belly is likely to be a first-cycle bird that will not breed in its first summer.

Short-billed Dowitcher, fall breeding plumage, 7/23/05, Edwards NWR, Alviso
This bird, in worn fall breeding plumage, shows a good number of spots (rather than bars) on the side of the breast, a solid mark for Short-billed. Many fall Long-billed have more of the dark marks on their breast, belly and flanks worn off, producing a smooth reddish surface over the whole underpart surface.

Short-billed Dowitchers, flying, 10/12/10, Radio Road, Redwood Shores, San Mateo Co
Above, a group of non-breeding dowitchers in flight, and below, a single bird. In general, I can't distinguish the two species by sight in their non-breeding plumage, and experts say that in most cases they can't either. Both of these birds took flight in areas where the dowitcher vocalizations I heard were all Short-billed "tu-tu-tu," but I can't exclude the possibility that the some of these birds might be Long-billed.

Short-billed (?) Dowitcher 11/20/10, Shoreline Park, Mountain View

Short-billed Dowitcher, juvenile, 8/20/05, Point Pinos, Pacific Grove, Monterey Co
Juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers, above and below; this is the one dowitcher plumage that is easy to identify. Only Short-billed juveniles have the "tiger-striped" tertials shown by both these birds; the tertials of juvenile Long-billed are mostly entirely plain, and in any case never striped or barred. Note that adult breeding plumage dowitchers of both species have barred tertials, though usually in a regular pattern rather than the wiggly lines and partial bars shown here. These birds can be identified as juveniles by the relatively unworn condition of their feathers, and the bright buff striping on the upperparts. The bird below shows the relatively slender figure that is characteristic of Short-billed as compared to the generally bulkier look of Long-billed -- but this not a reliable identifying mark by itself, as the chunky looking bird above illustrates. Note that both of these birds show the characteristic (but not invariable) extension of the dark primary tips beyond the ends of the tertials; this is a helpful supporting mark in identifying Short-billed Dowitcher.

Short-billed Dowitcher, juvenile, 9/15/08, Pillar Point, San Mateo Co