2014 Spotlight Bird

Long-billed Dowitcher 

Art: Brookelynn Harris, Student Art Contest Winner, Grade 4-6

Long-billed Dowitcher

by Ella Sorensen  

   The Long-billed Dowitcher is a medium-sized, chunky, snipe-like shorebird belonging to a group of species with long legs and thin bills that forage along shorelines or in shallow water.

   Every year millions of shorebirds pass through the waters and wetlands of Great Salt Lake.  If a light were lit where each individual shorebird began its life as a nestling, a map of western Canada and northern United States would twinkle like stars in a night sky.  Light a light for each shorebird’s winter destination and the    sparkle would continue from Great Salt Lake all the way to the tip of South America.   After nesting in the north shorebirds funnel to Great Salt Lake like grains in a giant hourglass.  At the Lake they feed and fatten on a teaming brew of brine flies and other invertebrates then once again disperse to the south.

Shorebirds have a special migration strategy honed to perfection through the millennia. Like airplanes that fly into a hub to fuel, shorebirds, after spectacular flights which often last hundreds or thousands or non-stop miles, converge in places that can provide an abundance of readily available biological insect fuel to furnish the energy to continue their journeys between breeding and wintering grounds. Great Salt Lake is one of the world’s most critical shorebird hubs.

   While shorebirds appear in wetlands throughout the entire hemisphere, each species has personalized a specific area for breeding and a distant different one for wintering.

    A dowitcher in Utah’s spring is here but for a brief frenzied feeding interlude on their rush to arrive on the tundra  as far north as a bird can fly in the western hemisphere and even spills over into Asia. Most arrive on their breeding grounds in mid to late May where they court, nest, and raise their young in grassy wet meadows interspaced with fresh water pools on the flat lowland coastal plains in of northwestern Alaska and Canada and northeastern Russia .

In fall dowitchers are one of the later migrating shorebirds to arrive at their “hub” in Utah wetlands.  Their fall passage through the state is more leisurely than spring, as they linger longer without haste on their journey to wintering grounds mainly along the Pacific and Gulf coasts and into Mexico . Among shorebirds, Long-billed Dowitchers are considered a medium distant migrant.

   Identification between certain shorebird species can be notoriously difficult. The common sense notion that a Long-billed and a Short-billed Dowitcher can be differentiated easily by bill length  is erroneous.  The two species look so similar they were considered a single species until 1950. DNA studies suggest that the two species separated 4 million years ago. But they remain close look a likes. Both have long nearly straight bills about twice the length of the head. Bill length varies between males and females with overlapping of size between the two dowitcher species. But their distinctive sturdy bill does distinguish the two dowitcher species from all other Utah shorebirds. Long-billed Dowitchers are far more abundant in Utah than the Short Billed Dowitcher.

   Great Salt Lake wetlands are delightful sites where movement flourishes.  The constant motion of birds scurrying about searching and consuming food with energy and vibrancy adds lively animation to the scene.  Dowitchers forage by sticking their long bill into soft mud covered with shallow water and jabbing their bills up and down, up and down with distinctive rhythmic repetitious movement unlike any other bird. This action is likened to the movement of a sewing machine needle.  The tip of the long bill has many receptors and the dowitcher locates it’s prey by touch.

   As with other shorebirds, dowitchers have three distinctive plumages. A rufous head and under parts for breeding, drab gray and white for winter, and a juvenile plumage similar to the adult but paler. Dowitchers can be seen in all plumages in Utah as well as in transition as they molt from one plumage into another.

Saturday, May 18th  11:45 am  Workshop on the Long-billed Dowitcher, Legacy Events Center, Farmington  

Field trips likely to see the Long-billed Dowitcher have this symbol  



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