A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Long-billed Dowitchers are mostly present in Sonoma County in the winter months and also during spring and fall migration, but more abundantly in the autumn. Uncommon between late May and early July. The earliest autumn migrants show up in late July, but the bulk of migrating birds arrives about a month later. Many move through the area quickly to points south (Mexico and Central America as far south as Panama), but a small winter population is usually established here by early November. Overwintering birds begin to leave the following April. Not common at the coast during the winter months. Prefers freshwater bodies such as small lakes, ponds, and flooded fields where it probes for food in the mud below shallow water or along muddy fringes. Often said to resemble a sewing machine because of the way it rhythmically pushes its bill into and out of the mud, searching for food. Usually seen in small flocks. Long-billed Dowitcher is more often associated with inland freshwater habitats than Short-billed Dowitcher--but either bird may be seen near freshwater or saltwater. Has a habit of wading belly-deep. Breeds in coastal tundra of northern Alaska and extreme northwest Canada.

Few pairs of birds give birders more trouble than Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) and Long-billed Dowitcher. The two species are fairly easy to tell from other shorebirds: they are stout-looking, short-necked birds with long bills typically used to probe deep in mud using the methodical, sewing machine motion described above. Telling one species from the other can be difficult, however. They are close enough visually that they were considered a single species until around 1950, according to the Claudia Wilds essay on Dowitchers in Kenn Kaufman's Advanced Birding (1990). Various prescriptions are offered to solve the problem of separating the two species, but it's sometimes impossible in the field. Simply accepting that you've seen a dowitcher may be the rational approach if you can't see the bird in question well. With a good look, however, it should be possible to make an ID. Call notes differ and these are often the best way to definitively tell the species apart (see below). Patterns on the scapulars and other coloration differences are useful in breeding adults, but we almost always see non-breeding, overwintering birds in Sonoma County. Despite the names of the birds, bill length is little help because bill length differs in males and females of both species (the females, on average, have longer bills), and, according to Wilds, female Short-billed Dowitchers have about the same average bill length as male Long-billed Dowitchers in Western populations.   

Long-billed Dowitcher in non-breeding plumage is brownish-grey above and at the breast with coarse grey barring on the flanks. Spotted with black under the tail. Distinct white "eyebrow" gives the look of a dark cap. Dark eyestripe; and very fine, broken eyering. Often shows darkness below the portion of the eyestripe in front of the eye (the loral stripe), which can give the impression of a slight hollow in front of and below the eye. Black bill usually paler and greenish at the base. Legs greenish. Tail mostly dark, finely barred with white.

For comparison, Short-billed Dowitcher in non-breeding plumage is brownish-grey above and at the breast, usually with scattered dark spots on the breast. White on the belly. Sides show broad, greyish barring. Distinct white "eyebrow." Dark eyestripe. lower sides and undertail area may be spotted and barred with black. Black bill usually greenish or greyish at the base. Legs greenish. Tail pattern differs from that of Long-billed Dowitcher, but tail details are often very difficult to see. In Long-Billed Dowitcher, the dark bars on the tail are always wider than the pale bars, giving the look of a dark tail finely barred with white. Short-billed Dowitcher usually has pale bars that are broader and sometimes shows mottling on the tail rather than distinct barring. Tips of primary flight feathers usually project further in Short-billed (typically two exposed primary tips) than in Long-billed Dowitcher (typically none exposed). In flight, both birds show a white stripe up the back, but Short-billed Dowitcher should have a tail that looks paler than the wings and a more uniformly colored back than Long-billed. A fringe of white on the trailing edge of the inner wing also indicates Short-billed rather than Long-billed Dowitcher. Having said all that, in reality, it's very confusing. Be bold enough to say "I don't know."

Voice: Long-billed Dowitcher makes high-pitched twittering noises reminiscent of the tribbles on Star Trek--if you're old enough to remember tribbles, but also a high, thin peep! or keek! Short-Billed Dowitcher makes a twittering tu! or tu-tu-tu! call repeated rapidly and also a more urgent, creaking, frog-like sound. Long-billed Dowitcher is generally the more vocal of the two birds. See links below for recordings.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 58

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 236

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 188

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, pg. 202

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 241-242

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 136

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 164

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 178

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 184

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 64-67 (general notes on shorebird ID), pp. 64, 68-75

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 210-241 (general notes on shorebird ID), pp. 30, 108, 219, 223, 224

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 116, 117

O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson, The Shorebird Guide, 2006, pp. 201-206

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 33

Paulson, Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide, 2005, pp. 316-320

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 140

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 150

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 138

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 170

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 278-279

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 140

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Long-billed Dowitcher

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Short-billed Dowitcher



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Long-billed Dowitchers, Place-to-Play Park, Santa Rosa, October 10, 2012

Long-billed Dowitchers in flight, Place-to-Play Park, Santa Rosa, October 10, 2012

Long-billed Dowitchers in flight, Place-to-Play Park, Santa Rosa, October 10, 2012

For comparison: Short-billed Dowitcher, Porto Bodega, Bodega Bay, October 22, 2012

Note spotting on breast, primary projection beyond tail

Long-billed Dowitcher

Limnodromus scolopaceus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 19, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County