Monday, February 20, 2006
Mention the word "shorebirds" and many birders get out their paper bags and start hyperventilating. Their anxiety stems from the fact that shorebirds are one of the tougher groups of birds to identify. Who wouldn't hyperventilate? Shorebirds are, for the most part, small, brown and look similar. Plus, they're are not always standing on your toes to make ID easy. You often need a scope to get good looks at the shorebirds on distant mudflats.
Is there a shortcut to learning these difficult birds? Today we are teaching a shorebird course and one of our messages is, to help take the stress out of learning shorebirds, look at shorebird shapes. Shape stays roughly the same through ages, seasons, sexes, and molt. Shape is often distinctive when plumage may not be.
Train your eye to look at the outline of shorebirds. Notice the length and shape of the bill, the size and countour of the head, the length and depth of the body. Is the bill longer than the length of the head, clearly shorter, or about as long? How long are the legs, and how is the body balanced on the legs? Is there more of the body in front of the legs, or behind? By training yourself to be sensitive to shape you will be better able to identify even what you thought were look-alike species.
Get out in the field and practice. If you cannot be in the field, a good way to work on shape is to look at bird photos, in books or on the internet. Here are some photos to practice on. The first is a Black-bellied Plover, Dunlin in the middle, and Piping Plover last.
Another resource is our photographic, Stokes Beginner's Guide To Shorebirds (covers all N.A. shorebirds, used by novice-avid birders). It is organized by shorebird size and shape. So next time you see shorebirds, put the paper bags down and shape-up. Train yourself to look at shape and shorebird identification will be, if not easy, at least easier.