A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Short-billed Dowitchers are mostly present in Sonoma County coastally in the winter months and during spring and autumn migration. Least common between May and early July. The first autumn migrants show up as early as mid-July, with the bulk of migrating birds arriving by the end of that month. Probably most common here in August and September and again in late March and April. Overwintering birds will have mostly left by the second week of May. More common at the coast, whereas Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceous) prefers freshwater bodies such as small lakes, ponds, and flooded fields. Although, Long-billed Dowitcher is more often associated with inland freshwater habitats than Short-billed Dowitcher, either bird may be seen near freshwater or saltwater. Short-billed Dowitcher is usually seen in small flocks.

Few pairs of birds give birders more trouble than Short-billed Dowitcher 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 a mechanical, “sewing machine” motion. 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 links below). Patterns on the scapulars and other coloration differences are useful in breeding adults, but we almost always see non-breeding, migrating or 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.   

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."

For comparison: 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.

Voice: 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 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!  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

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

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 163

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 177

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

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

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 210-241 (general notes on shorebird ID), pp. 98, 121, 219, 223, 224

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 115-117

O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson, The Shorebird Guide, 2006, pp. 194-200

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

Paulson, Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide, 2005, pp. 308-315

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. 171

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 276-277

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 139

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

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Long-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.


Short-billed Dowitcher, Porto Bodega, Bodega Bay, October 22, 2012

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

Note complete lack of primary projection beyond tail, complete lack of spotting on breast.

Short-billed Dowitcher

Limnodromus griseus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated August 26, 2013

EBird-reported occurrence in Sonoma County