Name That Bird – Mystery Shorebird in East New Orleans

Shorebird identification gives me a lot of trouble so today, we’re going to walk through an ID that, as of starting to write this post, I still have not made.  I’m going to be using a field guide to narrow down my choice and then doing a process of elimination until I find the correct bird. Let’s see how this goes.

DSC_0033 - wader

Location: Industrial Pkwy in New Orleans East, just down the road from Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.  This bird was found in the same gravel lined parking lot ditch that I had seen a bunch of shorebirds in earlier this month including Black-necked Stilts, Semipalmated Plovers, Dunlin, Least Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Sandpipers.  On this day, there were only two birds; this one and a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Initial thoughts:  Like most birds found wading in ankle deep water, periodically bending down to pluck something from the bottom, I immediately recognized this as some type of shorebird.  The long legs and body made it easy to rule out plovers so I’ll start with the largest and most frustrating group of shorebirds to identify; the sandpipers.

Size is always a great place to start with shorebirds and I had a handy reference bird nearby, although I wasn’t able to get a good picture of both of them side by side.  The butt of a Semipalmated Sandpiper is to the right in the picture below while the mystery bird is on the left.  A Semipalmated Sandpiper is about 5-6″, so I’d estimate this bird at about 8-10″.

DSC_0031 - wader and semipalmated sandpiper

Mystery bird on the left, Semipalmated Sandpiper butt on the right

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Semipalmated Sandpiper (5-6″)

Now, to narrow down our choices, I’m going to use one of my favorite field guides for this, the Second Edition of “the Sibley Guide To Birds” (Sibley). According to Sibley, the shorebird group has sixteen different genus in North America.  We’re going to go ahead and throw out plovers, oystercatchers, avocets and stilts since I’m familiar with those groups and am certain it is not one of those.  That leaves us with 10 genus that I’m not completely familiar with, so I’m going to take a cursory look at the characteristics of each genus and see if I can rule out whole groups right off the bat.

  • Actitis – Spotted Sandpiper – East to rule out as the Spotted Sandpiper has a white belly, short legs and a short neck.
  • Arenaria (Turnstones) – Also easy to rule out for the short legs and neck.
  • Calidris (typical waders) – A large genus that Sibley lists 15 species for.  Will likely need to revisit.
  • Limosa (Godwits) – easily ruled out due to both North American species having very long, slightly upturned bills.
  • Snipes and Woodcocks – ruled out by very long bills and very short necks and legs.
  • Phalaropus (phalaropes) – ruled out by having very thin bills
  • Limnodromus (dowitchers) – Another possibility
  • Tringa (shanks and tattlers) – A group that includes the birds that I thought of first when I saw this wader.  Definite possibility.
  • Numenius (curlews and whimbrel) – ruled out for easily identified down-turned beaks
  • Bartramia (Upland Sandpiper) – Similar body shape, but ruled out for having a short yellow bill instead of a long black bill.

So, just by looking through the overall characteristics of each genera, I’ve narrowed it down to three possibilities.  From here, I’ll start with the smallest genus and work up from there looking at each species listed by Sibley individually.

  • Limnodromus
    • Short-billed Dowitcher / Long-billed Dowitcher: Since so many people have a lot of trouble telling these two birds apart in the first place, I’m going to look at them together.  Range maps don’t help a lot as they show both species wintering on the Gulf Coast.  Size is between 9.8″-11.4″ which is a little larger than I estimated the mystery bird to be.  The bill length of dowitchers is said to be about twice the length of the bird’s head.  This is obviously not the case for our bird, so I’m ruling out dowitchers.
  • Tringa
    • Solitary Sandpiper – It’s the right size, but I know from experience that solitary sandpipers have a very distinct white eye-ring.
    • Wandering Tattler – I haven’t even heard of this bird and I see why.  It’s a west coast bird and the wrong color to boot.
    • Willet – I’ll admit, this was my first guess when I saw this bird.  I know Willet are usually a very uniform gray/white color. Using color as an identifier in sandpipers has led me astray before, but I immediately notice that willet are larger at 13-16″, have black legs note the yellow/green of this bird and the color is just all wrong.
    • Lesser Yellowlegs / Greater Yellowlegs – Again, a very similar pair, I’m going to try to rule these out together.  Size is right although yellowlegs’ bills and necks are thinner.  Resorting to color again, yellowlegs are usually gray and white and never have the brown facial markings and barred belly.  I’ll be honest here, at this point in the exercise, I found my bird.  It was listed under the “Similar Species” heading on the pages for both lesser and greater yellowlegs.
  • Calidris – Fifteen species!  Let’s narrow this down by size.
    • I know from experience that the “Peeps”, North America’s five smallest sandpipers can be incredibly tricky.  I also knew the Least Sandpiper (5.1-5.9″), Western Sandpiper (5.5-6.7″), Semipalmated Sandpiper (5.1-5.9″), White-rumped Sandpiper (5.9-7.1″) and Baird’s Sandpiper (5.5-7.1″) are all too small and stocky to be my mystery bird.  Ten to go.
    • Surfbird – Never heard of it. Another Pacific Coast bird.  Right size, but neck and legs are too short.
    • Red Knot – Considering I just watched a Nature documentary on these guys, I knew this was not the bird I was looking for.  Bill too short, wrong habitat and wrong color for the breeding season.
    • Sanderling – Too small and stocky overall, bill too short, wrong habitat and wrong color.
    • Pectoral Sandpiper – This bird was almost a perfect fit.  Right size, scaly brown coloring on the back, yellow-green legs, but the bill was too short.
    • Purple Sandpiper – A bird I hadn’t heard of because its range seems to only include the extreme north eastern area of the US and Canada.  Too stocky and too short of legs to be my bird anyway.
    • Rock Sandpiper – Another Pacific coast bird.  Too stocky.  It occurs to me at this point that maybe I should have consulted a field guide that only included eastern or Gulf Coast birds.
    • Dunlin – Although I had a suspicion at first, that this bird may be a Dunlin despite the lack of a black belly, I know now that it is not.  The Dunlin is slightly too small, slightly too stocky and lacks the correct coloration for Dunlin during breeding season.
    • Stilt Sandpiper – Right size, yellowish green legs, scaly dark brown back, barred stomach, red patches on face… We found it!  It’s a Stilt Sandpiper and that’s a new life bird for me!

I’m not going to lie, that took WAY longer than I thought it would.  But, I feel like I learned a LOT about shorebird identification by having to type all this out and look at each genus and species individually!  I hope you learned something too!

DSC_0033 - Mystery shore bird

Stilt Sandpiper