2010 Fall Class #1: Intro to Shorebirds

These notes are from the Oct, 5, 2010 Advanced Birding Class by Ken Brown, notes taken by Ed Pullen.

Tonight look at silhouettes.  Next week discuss molt, and start on plumage marks of shorebirds.  We will spend 3-4 weeks on shorebirds.  This class we will concentrate on shorebirds, gulls, and hawks, and briefly cover the rest.  Will look at more details like molt, flight characteristics.

Sibley Page 158-9 shows shorebirds in basic plumage.  Most are to scale.  Looking at scale and silhouettes.  Get the A Guide to Shorebirds book by Crosley et al.  You can ID 80+ % of shorebirds by  GISS.  Learn structure and behavior, it’s more intuitive.

Topography:  There are 5 rows of feathers in the scapulars.  Primaries are usually black, and you can count the tips.  Tertials and scapulars cover the primaries.
Primary projection is very important.

Scapular lines and mantle lines can be important. Look to see if the mantle feathers line up to make a whitish line on the edge of the mantle.

In the flying bird primary feathers numbered from the inside out, most have 9-10 primaries, i.e outermost is #`10.  Secondaries numbered from outside in, i.e. #1 is outermost.  Variable numbers, most have about 16.   Tertials lie just inside the secondaries,   Look at Big Sibley page 18 to see how the wings close under the tertials.  In the tail the two R1’s are together in the middle of the tail.  The primary coverts cover the primaries, and like the primaries the feather tracts originate from the wrist and form the hand,  the greater coverts cover the secondaries, if the greater covert tips are white it gives a wing stripe.  The Alula is the tip of the “bastard wing” at the very tip of the front of the wrist.

GISS:  General Impression Structure and Shape.  Relative size is very important, and often see mixed flocks, so you can often get several species in a group.  One shorebird by itself can be difficult.  If there are no other birds around relate size to a bird you know.  Look at structure, i.e. bill length to the length of the head.  If the bill is the length of the head it is average bill length.  Leg length, bill length, bill thickness, pointy or blunt bill, thick or thin at the base?, chunky or slim bird, attenuated or stocky, short neck like semipalmated SP or longer like western SP?

After these, go to the fine points, leg color, wing projection, bill color, i.e field marks.

Behavior:  how does it feed, visually or tactile feeder; deep prober or shallow probing, pick or probe, aggressive or methodical feeder (YLs)  Large tightly packed, or loose scattered flock.  Least SPs scatter, Western and dunlin tightly packed.  Voice can be diagnostic.

Probability is very important.  Know what to expect.  In July a large flock of dowichers is likely SB,  Long-billed often smaller flocks, later in the year.  Large flock of small shorebirds in the winter is always made up of primarily dunlin in WA.  Now (Oct.) if we see a dowicher at the coast, 90% LB.  Too late to likey be SB.

To get used to the intuitive approach, watch your  feeder.  Look at behaviors, eg. if you see a “Song Sparrow” like bird scratching on the ground it is a Fox Sparrow.  Song sparrows don’t scratch.

Silhouettes.  Look at the pictures in the shorebird book. 

Snowy Plover rounded belly, flat on the back, short legs.  Very short tail and bill.

Semipalmated plover more attenuated, though still stocky.

Killdeer nice rounded head, bill almost as long as the head, long tail.

Mountain Plover:  Killdeer size, long legs, upright, rounded head, medium sized bill,

Golden plovers:  Pacific smaller head and longer legs, Pacific bigger in the chest, American longer primary and wing projection,

Black Belied Plover:  Big headed, heavy looking, Big round head, short if any wing projection.

Upland Sandpiper:  very unique, medium to long bill on tiny head, long neck, very short wings, tail longer.

Pectoral sandpiper:  fairly long bill, blockish head, attenuated. Slightly larger than a dunlin.

Buff Breasted:  rounded head, habitat is key.

Oystercatcher:  big, stocky bill.

Whimbrel:  shorter more acutely curved bill.  Striped head.

LB Curlew:  attenuated, very long bill, overall rosy brown.

American Avocet:  note the Adam’s apple

Sometimes in non-breeding territory birds segregate by sex, females farther south.

Greater Yellowlegs: more aggressive, fast feeder,

Lesser Yellowlegs:  smaller, ½ the wt of greater. More attenuated, slimmer, straight bill, medium length, all black bill.

Solitary sandpiper:  Long bill, slightly decurved. Compact, smaller than lesser YL and dowichers.  Almost always alone. Early fall migrants.

Eastern and Western Willet:  long bill thick at the base, Western is larger and darker than the Eastern.

Hudsonian Godwit:  slightly smaller than Marbled, smaller bill, can show up in a flock godwits.  Wing stripe and banded tail.

Bar Tailed:  slightly smaller, two tone bill also.  Tends to be two toned earlier in the year.  In molt can be more uniform.  Use the eye stripe on Bar tailed.  Flares behind the eye, vs. marbled ends by the eye.


Bairds Sandpiper & White-rumped are bigger that the other three.

Bills:  Bairds needle like, thin throughout, white rumped bigger and two toned, western droopy, semipalmated thick at the base, short and blunt, least shallow at the base, to a point, and slightly decurved.

Baird’s and White-rumped have longer primary projection, in Baird’s so long the wings are sometimes crossed. In WA only fairly common long winged peep is Baird’s.

Western and Semi-palmated have short primary projection,

Least very small, small bill, short primary projection.

Western vs. Semi-palmated:  Bill is helpful, but juvenile westerns can have shorter bill too, but is droopy and not thick at the base.  Western more bull necked and front heavy.  Feeding is different.  Western probe and pick, Semi-palmated runs and picks.

Least tends to feed near its feet.

Spotted Sandpiper:  Southern Hemisphere in winter, most gone by now. Medium to long, attenuated.  Bobbing their tail.  (vs whole body bobbing in Solitary SP)

Baird’s tend to shuffle their feet and tend to bob their head with every step.

Dunlin: ( you have to know this, and the really common ones.) black legs and black droopy bill, much bigger than Western.  Longer than the head bill. Wing stripe.

Sanderling:  size of dunlin, on the beach, chase the waves, short to medium bill.  Black bill and legs.

Red Knot:  more in the spring.  Bigger than dowichers, more upright, chunky.  Medium length pointed bill,

Rock sandpiper:  Turnstone sized, small, pointed droopy bill.  Solid gray above in winter.

Surfbird:  large stocky

Wandering Tattler:  long attenuated, uniformly colored.

Stilt Sandpiper:  smaller than dowicher, upright, rounded head, walk and pick with their bill down,

Dowichers:  Key is the voice.

Phalaropes:  Habitat/ probability.  Red necked smallest, just bigger than western.  Red is biggest.  Bill shape key.  Red Phalarope has plover-like and two-toned bill.

Some Articles to Look at:


Migrants,  Mono Lake,  Monsoons, and Molt


Identification of North American Peeps A different Approach to an Old Problem


A tale of Two Strategies: New Advances in the Field Identification of Dowitchers


Washington Wrens and Dipper

Notes from June 2011 Spring Class

Wrens:  most are CBS, two CAS, most resident.  Some in NA move slightly south.  PF molt tends to be incomplete.  PF molt most extensive in Marsh, Bewick’s and Carolina Wrens.  PA reported in Marsh and Sedge wrens.  These two are more migratory.  Short distance migrants.

Bewick’s wren:  widespread W WA, locally FC E WA.  Riparian areas E WA, near Spokane, Klickitat, SE and S Central Col. Basin, local in Yakima, in W WA up to about 500’  Song more energetic and emphatic than song sparrow.

House Wren:  brushy areas low elevation, local W WA, common E WA, locally common in San Juans,  brambles, downed trees, cavity nesters, 4-15 –> 10-1, complex bubbly call resembles Lincoln Sparrow song.

Pacific Wren:  local lowlands as a breeder, more breed in the Mountains.  Split from E species as Winter wren.  Resident.  More in winter at low elevation.

Marsh Wren:  CAS, no change in appearance.  Local in E WA.  Along Col. River, Yakima area, Grand Cooley area.  Tend to pop up to recorded Virginia Rail call.  Aggressive birds.

Rock wren: migratory, short distance. Mostly absent in winter.  Rare in W WA  Recorded in all months, but most leave.  4-15 –> 11-15,  Broken rock slopes, like chutes, rock slides.  Need less space than Canyon Wrens, so can be found on small rock outcroppings, up to high elevations.

Canyon Wren:  residents, steep cliffs, almost always have water at the base of the cliff, cliffs tend to be large, 10 W WA records.

American Dipper:  CBS, most resident, some may move to slightly lower elevations in winter, first named in Mexico, hence there species name Mexicanus.  PB molt the inner 5-6 primaries synchronously, then the rest sequentially.  Tend to walk, not fly.  Move down in elevation in wintertime.

Washington Chickadees, Nuthatches and Creeper

Notes from JUne 2011 Spring Class


Black-capped Chickadee:  CBS, PF partial, more extensive in the south, common year round, resident, rare in the San Juans.  Riparian in E WA, low elevations but can be up to medium elevation, local in Col. Basin.  Deciduous to mixed.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee: up to Canadian zone, higher in some areas.  Common resident W WA.  No song, only a call, up to 4000’ E slope cascades, losing habitat and moving higher slightly.    Mostly conifer and mixed.

Mountain Chickadee: To high elevations.  Common in dry conifer forest of E WA, also at higher elevation 3000-timberline on W slope of Cascades, irreg. winter wanderer.  Likely to be split in the future into two species, one Gambel’s chickadee of the Rocky Mountains, and Bailey’s chickadee in our area.

Boreal Chickadee:  high elevation, usually wetter forest, more Douglas Fir with deciduous around lakes.  FR 39, above Salmon Meadows, Togo mountain is good.  Brownish cap, brownish-reddish sides, small white area on the face.

Nuthatches:  CAS.

Red-breasted nuthatch:   Molt their neck, chin and feathers because of the pitch on the conifers, so more extensive PA molt than the other nuthatches.

White-breasted nuthatch:  2 types.  Call is more nasal.  Slower yank-yank-yank.  Some rufus on the vent.

Pygmy Nuthatch:  Fairly common in dry open forest of E WA.  Local in Blues.  Series of Peeps as call.

Brown Creeper:  resident E and W WA.  CBS.  Old world species.  PF usually limited,  eccentric wing molt has been noted in PF.  Tail feater in PB is like woodpeckers, outer first and R1 last since like WP they use the tail as a prop.  Forests state wide, usually conifer more mature trees, some mixed forest, medium to high elevation, local nester at low elevation, more in wintertime with flocks of other birds.  Song high pitched, contact call a single noted see like GC kinglet which tends to be 3 or more see noted.

Washington Larks and Swallows

Notes from June 2011 Spring Class

Larks:  CBS.  Old world birds.  We only have one species.

Horned Lark:  known as a shore lark in Europe.  In NA about 25 subspecies, in WA Merili, Alpina and Streaked.  Northern birds migratory, PF is a complete molt. Live in sunny locals, so would be expected to have a PA molt, but none observed.

Swallows:  CBS.  Tree swallows eat berrys, so can stay further north.  One of the few birds who molt as they migrate.  So molt one feather at a time, and grow it back before it sheds another, so it takes 4-6 months to complete the primary molt.

Tree, VG, and Cave, and Rough-winged molt in the US whereas Cliff swallow does not,  so if you see a “cliff swallow type” molting they are a Cave.

Barn, Bank and and Cliff are long distance migrants, arrive later and molt outside the US.  PF complete.

Purple Martin:  fairly rare to uncommon as migrants, local breeders, most in W WA on salt water, rare in E WA.  4-10 –>  9-20.   Females lighter colored below.

Northern Rough-winged swallow:  FC to locally common E WA, low to moderate elevation,  3-10 –> 9-25.  Discrete, not usually in large flocks, pairs or small groups.  Need a soft substrate to nest in.  In W WA usually over or around water.  Blunt tail, slightly notched at times, evenly colored on the back.  Smudgy on the breast, Chin smudgy.  Young birds rufous wing bars.  Low to mod. Elevation.

Bank Swallow:   White chin and belly with band thickest in the middle, more notched tail, on the back the body is more grayish brown and the wings brownish, look at the back in flight look for the two toned upper body.  Have been seen as migrants and possible breed in Whatcom.  Large colonies in E WA at places.  3-20 –> 10-1,  4-15 –> 9-20 in W WA.  To 2300 feet.

Violet-green Swallow:  2-20 –> 10-15, low to mod. Elevation, local at higher elevations.  Common in towns, cavity nester.  Eye in the white.  Young are brownish and can be mistaken for R. Winged, look for saddle bags, if sitting look at wing length.  Very long past the tail.

Tree swallow:  cavity nester, fresh water ponds, usually low to mid elevation, 2-15 –> 10-25.

Cliff Swallow:  widespread,  3-15 –> 10-15, low to mod elevation,

Barn Swallow:  Last to arrive, 3-10 –>  11-15.   4-1 –>  8-10 in E WA.  Up to high elevation.

Washington Corvids

Class Notes from June 2011 Class on Jays and Crows

Jays and Crows:  CBS, resident. Pre-basic molt overlaps with breeding. For example in Clark’s Nutcracker starts PB molt in March and April.

American Crow:  Juvenile look fresh all summer, Adults molt in summer until July until fall.  First year birds start molt much earlier and molt in April – summer.

Stellar’s Jay:  Blue Jay:  mainly in winter as a migrant.  Most 8-25 à 4-1

Western Scrub Jay:  Like suburbia, esp. oak. Moving north.

Gray Jay:  In W WA 3000-sub alpine, E WA 3600 – timberline.  Juvenile birds darker.

Clark’s nutcracker:  start PB molt March-April, suspend and resume in the fall.  2 subspecies in WA, one in Ponderosa Pine with cliffs, others at high elevation  i.e. 4000 ft to the timberline assoc. with white bark pine, which grows in subalpine forest.

Black-billed magpie:  low elevation E WA.  A few W side sightings.  Resident.

Am. Crow:  news.  DNA testing shows not much difference between the NW smaller crows and the bigger crows.  Come in many sizes.

Common Raven:  fairly common W WA, common E WA.

Washington Vireos

Washington Vireos- Notes from Spring Class 2011

Most Vireos are CBS, some are CAS, most medium distance migrants, the red-eyed group are long distance migrants.  One WA vireo is a resident – Hutton’s vireo.

Cassin’s Vireo:  4-10 à 10-1  (general dates) like dry open conifer and open forests, mixed forest on W side, migrate thru a vaiety of habitats, found in local and dispersed areas, uncommon W WA, riparian mixed forest and in black cottonwood or maple on W Wide, E side dry conifer forests.  NE Olympic peninsula, San Juans, and Pierce Co.  Spectacles.  We only have 4 vireos.  So first on seeing a vireo see if there are wing bars.  2 with (Hutton’s and Cassin’s) and 2 without (Red-eyed and Warbling)  Like all vireos bill has a little hook on the bill, thicker bill than warblers.

Red-eyed Vireo:  No wing bars, long distance migrants, dark line thru the eye, white eye stripe, clear breasted, locally fairly common to common breeder in NE WA and E WA, absent Columbia basin, medium elevation, riparian, esp black cottonwoods, in W WA big leaf maple.  5-15 à 10-1,  many more on the E side.

Warbling Vireo: no wing bars, weak eye stripe, no black thru the eye, deciduous up to sub alpine, 4-15 à 9-20.  Most arrive about May 1st.

Hutton’s vireo:  CBS, resident, 2 wing bars, broken eye ring, no black behind the greater coverts, look big headed compared to RC Kinglet, more deliberate, mostly sing in March and April, sing occasionally.  2 noted song, over and over.  Like edges up to 1500 feet in WA, deciduous and conifers with mixed forest, absent Olympic Peninsula, only 3 E WA records.  Hop deliberately form limb to limb.

White-eyed vireo:  One record on Vashon Island

Yellow-throated Vireo:  one record.

Blue-headed vireo:  2 records (only split 1998)

Philadelphia Vireo:  2 records.

Bell’s vireo:  one record at Skagit fall 2007.