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Keys to identifying shorebirds

Shorebirds feeding patterns
These illustrations depict the typical movements of four types of shorebirds. Blue lines show the path of the bill tip as the bird forages. Clockwise from top right: yellowlegs, plover, dowitcher, and peep. Art by David Sibley

You might not be thinking of bird migration in July and August, but this is the peak of southbound shorebird migration, when any mudflat is likely to provide a resting place for a few species, and the best locations can host 20 or more species together. Shorebirds (sandpipers and plovers) provide some of the most exciting late-summer birding opportunities, but they are widely known for being among the most challenging birds to identify. Many similar species are often in mixed flocks.

As with any other large group of similar species, the shorebirds can be subdivided into smaller groups of related species based on shared characteristics. Once you have found a flock of shorebirds, one of the best first steps is to figure out which of the subgroups are represented. Pay special attention to overall size and proportions, habitat choice, and foraging motions. Don’t worry too much about details of plumage at this stage.

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

David Sibley on social media