Where When How — Summer 2017
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Our Feathered Friends Shorebirds
Kim Mortimer

When Visiting The Turks And Caicos Islands (TCI) there are many different birds that can be spotted along the beaches. You may have even heard birders use the term ‘shorebird’. However they are not referring to all of the birds one might catch sight of along the shore, but rather a specific group of birds that has distinct and unique qualities. There are many different types of shorebirds and they come in all shapes and sizes, although they all share certain characteristics both physically and behaviourally. Throughout other regions of the world they are referred to as ‘wading birds’. However in north America they are known as shorebirds, while the term wading bird is used to refer to the long-legged birds such as storks and herons.

Shorebirds are an interesting family of birds to learn about. Nearly all shorebirds are commonly found in wet habitats and coastal shorelines including inland estuaries, mudflats and rocky shorelines. As most shorebirds are carnivorous they spend a large amount of time wading in shallow water, or along its edge, foraging for food such as insects or crustaceans living in the sand or mud. Physically their narrow round heads, small eyes, and long slim necks, legs and bills are designed essentially for their tactile and probing feeding behaviour.

Shorebirds have evolved logically to cater to their feeding requirements. Different species have varying lengths of legs and bills enabling them to feed in the same habitat without directly competing for food. Shorebirds are generally gregarious and mixed flocks are often observed here in TCI with several distinct species.

Shorebirds range in size from small to medium-large birds and cover several related bird families that make up this distinct group. In fact more than 180 birds could be considered true shorebirds around the world. One of the most diverse category of shorebirds are the sandpipers, which make up the large family Scolopacidae. While the family includes all the species that have sandpiper in their name, it also includes other species such as dowitchers, snipes, turnstones, woodcocks, stints, godwits, curlews, phalaropes and yellowlegs. All of the different birds that are part of the Scolopacidae family likely make up 80-90 species of the shorebirds.

Even if just looking at the sandpiper species of shorebirds, learning to understand the obvious and subtle differences between the types of birds can help you to identify them more easily. While they range in size from the tiniest species of sandpiper, which can weigh in at less than an ounce, to the longer legged godwits, which can stand over a foot tall, not all the bird’s differences are as noticeable as this. In fact if the only difference between species is their relative size, this usually is really only noticeable to the untrained eye if the two competing species are standing side by side. Indeed it can be rather cryptic with the majority of shorebirds having evolved to blend in with their natural surroundings of grasses, sand and mud. This has led to some birds having only minor differences between species. For most birders the mystery of identifying can be fun to solve, but it can also make identification a challenge.

Some of these minor differences can involve varying leg colour, which in the field can be challenging to note, especially when the bird’s legs are often hidden in the mud. A slight difference between a bird’s brown or rust colouration can be hard to identify in any bad light. They are also shy birds and keep their distance from observers, moving so fast or even into flight at the slightest intrusion. So in the field indentifying even the larger shorebirds, when they are done so by the length of their bill or whether it is straight (yellowlegs), curved up (Godwit) or down (Whimbrel), can be tricky.

The greater and lesser yellowlegs are two shorebirds that at first glance can be easily confused with each other, and maybe also with another family member called the solitary sandpiper. Yellowlegs look identical except for their size, so how can one distinguish between the characteristics of these two nearly identical birds, especially when they are spotted alone? Typically it is the differences in their bills and flight calls that are the most reliable means of telling them apart. The lesser yellowlegs bill is shorter than the greater yellowlegs, whose bill is noticeably longer than its head. However if one was to spend enough time observing and becoming better acquainted with these shorebirds one might also be able to note the different personalities between the species. Knowing that the lesser is often found in small ponds and in flocks, whereas the greater is much more of a loner might also help in differentiating between the two species.

Get up close and personal with your own field experience and try to decide which of the three above-mentioned sandpipers is in the image on this page .