Bird Lore: Long-billed Dowitcher

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The Long-billed Dowitcher, as well as the Short-billed Dowitcher, is a somewhat dumpy sandpiper with shortish legs and a long bill. Both species can be seen at the same time during migration but the Long-billed Dowitcher tends to favor fresh water habitats, whereas the Short-billed Dowitcher favors salt water. In Washington, the Short-billed Dowitcher is more abundant on the outer coast and the Long-billed Dowitcher is more abundant along the inland marine waters. When dowitchers show up in migration at the Edmonds Marsh or along the waterfront beaches, they are more likely to be the Long-billed species.

The Long-billed Dowitcher has a protracted migration. It winters in Mexico and along the coasts of the contiguous U.S. Spring migration begins by late February, with birds arriving on the breeding grounds by mid to late May. This species begins its southbound journey by mid July, with movement continuing through mid October. It can be found in Washington during the winter months in very small numbers.

Diet varies with the season. On its breeding grounds, the Long-billed Dowitcher eats a lot of insects and their larvae. In winter and in migration it also eats crustaceans, marine worms and mollusks. It forages by wading in shallow water or walking on wet mud. It uses its long bill to probe deeply, jabbing rapidly in the mud for its prey. Nerve endings in the bill are used to sense prey. Its probing is often described as a sewing-machine motion.

The Long-billed Dowitcher breeds in the coastal regions of Siberia and North America’s western Arctic. References do not describe courtship displays. What is known is that the nest is a depression in the ground, sparsely lined with grasses and sedges. The bottom of the nest is often wet. The nest is usually near water, frequently on a raised hummock in a wet meadow. There are typically four eggs that are incubated by both sexes for about three weeks. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching. The female then departs, leaving the male to tend the young. Development of the young and their age at first flight are not known.

Population trends for the Long-billed Dowitcher are poorly understood. A 2012 study estimated 500,000 birds in North America. This dowitcher just missed being on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds Watch List. At this point it is still considered a species of least concern for conservation purposes.

The oldest recorded Long-billed Dowitcher was at least 8 years and 4 months of age when it was shot in Kansas, the same state in which it had been banded. Collective nouns for any group of sandpipers include bind, contradiction, fling, hill and time-step.

This is the song of a Long-billed Dowitcher on its tundra breeding grounds: http://www.xeno-canto.org/141737. The calls of a feeding flock of dowitchers can be heard here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/178012.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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