Birds of Chignik Lake: The Long Bill of the Short-billed Dowitcher (and a thought from Ernest Hemingway regarding shore-bird conservation)

Having encountered them only once on the Chignik River in the past five years, Short-billed Dowitchers would have to be considered a rare species here. I was happy to be surprised by a small flock of them one late-summer day while looking for teal.

It’s a bit difficult and somewhat sad to think that not so long ago, shorebirds such as dowitchers were considered fair game by many shotgun-toting sportsmen. Ernest Hemingway mentions this in a couple of his books, noting (happily, I think) in his posthumously published Islands in The Stream that he loved watching the little plovers and other peeps and could no longer think about shooting them. Perhaps the early American ornithologist Elliot Coues said it best in a passage he wrote in the 1917 edition of Birds of America:

“(The dowitcher’s) gregarious instinct, combined with its gentleness, is a fatal trait, and enables gunners to slaughter them unmercifully and sometimes to exterminate every individual in a ‘bunch.’ To turn a 12-gauge ‘cannon’ loose among these unsuspicious birds, winnowing in over decoys with friendly greeting, is about as sportsmanlike as shooting into a bunch of chickens. To capture them with a camera requires skill and patience, and herein lies the hope for future existence of our disappearing wild life – substitution of the lens for the gun!”

Note the bill serrations on this dowitcher which has just come up with a tidbit of some sort – perhaps the larval stage of an insect or a mass of invertebrate eggs. The tip of the bill contains sensitive receptors called Herbst corpuscles which aid it in searching for food. Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers both have exceptionally long bills, and as the bill lengths fo the two species vary and overlap, it is not a reliable diagnostic. In fact, unless the birds are vocalizing, distinguishing Long-billeds from Short-billeds in the field is quite difficult. The flock of over a dozen dowitchers I encountered were in freshwater on the Chignik, several miles above the estuary – habitat where one might more likely encounter Long-billed Dowitchers. They were not vocalizing, but I believe these are Short-billeds based on more overall spotting than barring, a more sloped forehead, and the fact that Short-billeds are more common than Long-billeds on the Alaska Peninsula. But I am happy to have someone with more experience with these peeps offer a correction. It is also entirely possible that both dowitcher species were represented in this flock.

In recent years, dowitchers have experienced rather steep population declines. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website, reasons include sea level rise, loss of habitat due to development and other factors, and hunting. Regarding the latter reason, I have to agree with Messrs. Coues and Hemingway. With the species in decline, it would seem the better part of discretion to stow the shotgun and opt for chicken breasts.

It’s common for shorebirds to travel in mixed flocks with each species taking advantage of slightly different feeding strategies. Here a pair of Least Sandpipers get in on the action.

The dowitcher’s needlelike bill probes silt, mud and sand with an astonishing speed that has been compared to that of a sewing machine. I’ve recently begun broadening my documentation to include video and was happy to have had the presence of mind to do so with these birds. The “sewing machine” feeding style is well demonstrated – as is the challenge of getting a good, clear still capture of these frenetic birds in typical Chignik low-light conditions.

Dowitchers feeding at Devil’s Flats on the Chignik River, Alaska

Partially concealed behind tall grasses, sedges and Arctic Dock, camera at the ready, its long lens wrapped in a camouflage sleeve, Barbra and I watch as a group of shorebirds bank in unison, the white of their underwings flashing. A short way upriver, they wheel and come back, pass overhead, bank and wheel again a little ways down river, and then return to settle in over the shallows we’ve been watching. I look at Barbra and she smiles. New birds. Our 99th species in the freshwater portion of the Chignik Drainage between Chignik Lake and the estuary. Hemingway was right. They are wonderful to watch.

Although the range map below does not indicate the presence of Short-billed Dowitchers on the Alaska Peninsula, David Sibley includes the peninsula on the range map in his field guide as does the Audubon website.

Short-billed Dowitcher Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Short-billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus griseus
Order: Charadriiformes
Limnodromus
: Ancient Greek limne = marsh, and dromos – racer. marsh racer
griseus: Medieval Latin for gray

Status at Chignik Lake: Only one sighting in five years, however it is likely that this species is a regular if brief late summer migrant in the drainage and may even nest in nearby areas of tundra or marsh.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not reported

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Common in Spring, Summer & Fall; Not reported in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Click here for the: Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

3 thoughts on “Birds of Chignik Lake: The Long Bill of the Short-billed Dowitcher (and a thought from Ernest Hemingway regarding shore-bird conservation)

  1. Congratulations on species # 99 for this site. I only know their long-billed relatives and would be thrilled to come across them.
    Hoping that 2022 will bring species #100 and maybe more.
    Best,
    Tanja

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