Dowitcher delights

While Burnaby is a great place to see many different types of birds, our number and diversity of shorebirds, or waders as the English call them, is only modest. We just don’t have the river estuaries and mudflats that many species of these long-legged probers depend on for food. But we do have some places to observe them, and they are often up close and easy to observe. Remember to click on the images to enlarge.

Burnaby Lake, and Piper Spit in particular, is probably our best and most reliable spot to see these birds. Where Eagle Creek enters the lake, a small mudflat often hosts a small flock of Long-billed Dowitchers. Here they are above, snoozing and preening. The spit boardwalk gives good close views.

Appropriately named Long-billed Dowitchers? I think so. Look at those bills! But having said that, their close relatives, the Short-billed Dowitchers, confusingly have bills much the same length! In fact, you can’t tell the difference in the field by bill length. The easiest way to tell them apart is by voice. When they are vocal, you’ll hear the ones at Piper Spit make a loud, single Keek! Short-billed have a three-part Tu Tu Tu! call.

There are plumage differences between the two species, but they are subtle and difficult to discern without binoculars. Even experienced birders find separating the two species a challenge at times. Fortunately for us, the two dowitchers separate themselves much of the time by habitat. Long-billed prefer freshwater wetlands, like Burnaby Lake, whereas Short-billed prefer saltwater or brackish wetlands and mudflats.

Stretching its wing, the bird above is showing us what it uses to get to Burnaby from its breeding grounds in Western and Northern Alaska, and North East Siberia. It may seem a long way from the Arctic coastal plains to Burnaby, but many other shorebird species travel vast distances from the Arctic to as far south as southern South America. So by contrast, Long-billed Dowitchers are considered medium distance migrants. Seems a good stretch to me nonetheless.

They will spend the winter with us in Burnaby, and except for places like Delta on the Fraser Estuary, and the head of Port Moody Arm, we have the largest wintering population of these birds in the Burnaby/Vancouver area. We have recorded close to 100 here on the annual Christmas  Bird Count. And as for that unusual, delightful name, dowitcher seems to derive from the Iroquoian word ‘tawistawis’ meaning ‘snipe’, and may have been appropriated by white European hunters in the 19th century on the Eastern Seaboard of North America.

Enjoy our Burnaby Lake tawistawis; they should be with us from fall through to spring.

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