TIPS FOR SHOREBIRD IDENTIFICATION

(From the booklet "A Pocket Guide to Great Plains Shorebirds".)

Identification Tips              Anatomical Features of Birds

Shorebirds are highly variable in their appearance, behavior and life history making it difficult to define shorebirds as a group. Generalized, they are medium to small-sized birds with relatively long legs. Many have long, slender probing bills. Most nest on bare ground in sparsely-lined depressions or scrapes. Precocial young hatch from camouflaged eggs and leave the nest site within a few hours.

The best way to learn about a species is to observe it in its natural habitat, throughout its range and in different seasons. The Pocket Guide to Great Plains Shorebirds uses morphology, distinctive behaviors, geographic range, preferred habitats and their seasonal occurrence to help identify the various species. Begin by answering the following questions as you observe the bird.

What is the bird’s body size? If you cannot estimate its measurements, compare its body size to that of a crow, pigeon, dove, robin or sparrow. Is its general body shape thin or chunky?
Are there any distinctive colors or color patterns on its body, head, legs or bill?
Is the bill short or long? How does it compare to the length of the bird’s head? Is it straight, curved up or down or tapered from base to tip?
Are the legs relatively long or short? In flight, how does the length of the tail compare to the length of the legs?
Are there any feather crests or ruffs, eye rings or smudges, wing or tail stripes?
Is its posture upright and attentive or does it look hunched over?
When the bird is standing, how far past the tail do the wing tips protrude?
Is it feeding by probing in the substrate, picking things off the surface or turning pebbles over to grab food underneath?
Does it bob when moving or run short distances and stop suddenly?
Is the bird in a wetland, grassland (short or tall grass), deep water, mudflat or the vegetated edge of a wetland?
Is it alone or in a flock of similar species?

Spend time looking at the bird and make notes before looking in the guide. Refer to the drawings for unfamiliar terms. Although colors may be described as “gray” or “orange,” these are relative, subject to your interpretation and usually represent a continuum of light to dark and bright to dull. Differences in individual birds (such as age and sex) and the season, weather and lighting conditions can add confusion to identifying some species. Refer to the section on similar species under each of the species accounts to focus your observations and eliminate look-alike species. Above all, remember to have fun and enjoy your shorebird sightings!

Terminology:

Features seen while the bird is standing

Features seen while the bird is standing

 

Features of the head area

Features of the head area

 

Features seen while the bird is in flight

Features seen while the bird is in flight

Follow the tracks!

Peep's Puddle
Text: Suzanne Fellows and Bob Gress
Anatomical Illustrations: Dan Kilby, used by permission
Web Design: Jim Mason

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Great Plains Nature Center
6232 E. 29th Street North
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