At Jamaica Bay a couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be with birders who carefully scan through each and every bird in a flock hoping to find a rarity.  Not that I don’t do that, but I tend to get distracted by whatever bird happens to be closest and in good light so I am usually taking a picture of a Common Tern or a juvenile Least Sandpiper when someone says “I have a [insert pretty darn good bird of your choice] here.”

I am not sure if my behavior makes me like a parasite, in that I attach to a host and suck the rarities from them, like a sidekick in that someone else finds the rare bird and I get pictures and serve as back up in case some other birder questions the sighting and say things like “Great Audubon’s Ghost!  That’s one heck of a bird!” or, perhaps, like a jaeger, in that I let someone else do the work and then harass them until they disgorge the rarity into my optics, but I do know that I either lack the patience or skill (or both?) to scan through big flocks of shorebirds and find the good one.*  I do, on occasion, find the shorebird that is slightly different but not different enough, like an injured dowitcher, a knot with a tumor, or a sandpiper that managed to dip itself into some oil.

Anyway, to get us back to the topic at hand here, last week one of the several birders I was with said something like “There’s a Long-billed Dowitcher up ahead.”

Now, Long-billed Dowitchers aren’t particularly rare, though there are probably a couple hundred Short-billed Dowitchers for every Long-billed Dowitcher that goes through Jamaica Bay, but they are very similar to Short-billed Dowitchers so they are difficult to pick out of the flock.  In this case we were lucky in that the bird was feeding with just a few other birds so once one of my fellow birders had identified it there was no problem keeping up with its location.

Unfortunately, the bird was in bad light and kind of distant.  So we took record shots (one is over there on the left), and, because we figured that we had to walk towards and past it anyway, we might as well make our move in a slow and steady way that might, instead of flushing the dowitcher altogether, get it to move gradually into better light as we drew closer.  So we slowly and carefully made our way north along the east edge of the pond, a good spot to move slowly anyway because of the nasty mud, and, sure enough, the bird cooperated by walking into much better light just as we started to get relatively close to it.  Score one for the birders!

Long-billed Dowitcher above and the same bird with a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher below.

So what made this particular bird Limnodromus scolopaceus rather than Limnodromus griseus?  Ha!  How about because I said so?  Or how about we have a contest to see who can pronounce dowitcher scientific names quickly and correctly?  Or, hey, look over there, it’s a Spoon-billed Sandpiper!

[footsteps footsteps footsteps…door slam]

The picture above was taken seconds before the picture below.

Seriously though, if you want to learn the difference between the dowitchers** I highly recommend you do something easier, like getting a camel through the eye of a needle, identifying silent Empidonax flycatchers, or explaining to a teabagger that Barack Obama can’t be a practicing Muslim, a Communist, and a Nazi at the same time.  In the meantime, enjoy these last two pictures of the Long-billed Dowitcher with a Greater Yellowlegs, a bird from which you should have no problem distinguishing the Long-billed Dowitcher.

*The exceptions to this rule are as follows: 1. When the bird in question is really, really, obvious, like an avocet among dowitchers or a godwit among peeps.  2. When I am the only birder there and know that something really, really, good has been reported I will buckle down and do the work.  3. When a rare but cryptic shorebird crashes into my head and falls at my feet, but only if it is also wearing a sign identifying itself.

**I have been told that they are readily identifiable by taste, so maybe you just need to grab one and lick it?  Good luck with that.  Though, if you do lick a dowitcher at Jamaica Bay’s East Pond and accidentally ingest some mud you might end up hallucinating.

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.