This time last year I was the type of birder who thought all shorebirds looked the same. Sure, I could tell a plover from a sandpiper or a yellowlegs from a peep, but I wasn’t confident IDing most species I saw in the field. In fact, I thought shorebird ID was an impossible task that only the most expert of birders could achieve. I am thrilled to announce that one year later my shorebird ID skills have drastically improved. Some might even call me The Afternoon Birder 2.0 – shorebirder extraordinaire! (okay, maybe it’s just me who calls myself that.)
The point is that with a bit of work and effort, you too can become the 2.0 version of yourself and be able to confidently ID shorebirds. Keep reading to find out everything that I did to go from shorebirder 0 to shorebirder 2.0.
Change Your Method
The Old Method
Before becoming a shorebirder extraordinaire, my method was to see shorebirds in the field, take photographs and then compare the photographs to drawings in a general North American field guide. I focused on trying to match the plumage in my photographs to the plumage depicted in the field guide. I had no understanding of shorebird molting patterns or how to determine the age of a shorebird, making this task extremely difficult.
I also didn’t put any effort into studying this group during the off-season. All of my effort was focused on studying photographs after I had been out in the field.
This method failed terribly.
The 2.0 Method
This year I decided that my shorebird ID skills were so lacking that it required drastic action. I made a commitment back in July to “crack” shorebird ID. But, how in the world would I do this? Turns out, I needed a new way of looking at shorebirds.
The big aha moment came when my friend Jon Ruddy sent me this article which completely changed my perspective about how to ID shorebirds. The author of the article suggests to go beyond field-marks and look at the structure and behaviour of each species. You have to dedicate time to studying, but once you start seeing the differences it changes everything! And, yes there are differences between species. You just have to train your eye to see them.
Once I had my new perspective, the rest of my method followed these steps:
1. Study Shorebirds Before Going Into the Field
I can’t stress this point enough. Where I live we only see shorebirds for a few months of the year, mostly during migration. My old method was to head out birding without doing any preparation before going out in the field. This year I made a commitment to improving my shorebird ID skills and I spent time studying this group during the off-season.
I don’t recommend trying to learn all the shorebirds at once. Break them down into groups and focus on one group at a time (plovers, peeps, yellowlegs etc.)
What I Studied
North American Peep Identification. A Different Look At An Old Problem – this is the article I mention above. I printed all 3 parts of the article and focused on one group of peeps at a time. Once the points had sunk in, I went on Instagram and looked at photographs with the hashtags #leastsandpiper #semipalmatedsandpiper #westernsandpiper etc. and ‘tested’ myself to ID the birds in the photographs.
The Shorebird Guide
While I adore my Sibley Field Guide, I prefer looking at photographs of shorebirds rather than drawings. If you’re going to invest in one specialist shorebird guide, The Shorebird Guide ($25 on Amazon) is the one to get. It embraces the 2.0 method of relying on relative size, structure and behaviour, rather than just plumage, to identify this difficult group. The photographs are amazing – there are many for each species, including ones with multiple species so you can really start to pick out the differences. This guide also taught me a lot about how to age shorebirds and their molting patterns. Once you understand these two things, then you can use plumage to help you identify a species.
Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds
The Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds ($10 on Amazon) alone didn’t help me crack shorebird ID, but I found it invaluable to bring with me on trips because it’s small and portable. You can quickly and easily flip through the pages to find the species you are looking for. This is surprisingly helpful when you’re trying to study a difficult group.
2018 update – I just discovered this Audubon presentation: Identifying Winter Sandpipers that is another great studying resource!
2. Get Out in the Field As Much As Possible
As it turned out, Ottawa had high water levels this year so there was little to no shorebird habitat during fall migration. Rather than throw in the towel, I traveled further afield to stick to my commitment of improving my ID skills. This year I went to Prince Edward Island, Presqu’ile Provincial Park and Southwest Florida (all shorebird meccas) and fully immersed myself in shorebird viewing and photographing. I also made the most of what shorebirds I could find in Ottawa.
3. Slow Down And Go Solo
For this step I recommend going out alone, finding a group of shorebirds and spending some time just watching them. I am the worst for this because I get too excited and want to take photographs. But, when I was in Prince Edward Island I sat down on the beach and started really studying a group of nearby shorebirds. I remembered many of the things I had learned during Step 1 (study) and began picking out the different species in the group. I watched how different species were feeding, what size they were relative to others around them and what sort of posture they had. Slowly but surely, method 2.0 started to work!
Going alone is important because you won’t be distracted by other people calling out IDs. You can also go at your own pace and not be rushed by a group wanting to move on to the next species. You will have to rely on your own skills to identify what you see.
Taking photographs is okay too, but don’t get so caught up in a photography frenzy that you forget to study the birds you’re seeing.
4. Go Out With An Expert
At some point during this process you will likely hit a wall where, despite all your studying, you just can’t figure out a species or two. I highly recommend going out at least once with an expert. Let them know that you’re trying to improve your shorebird ID skills and that you would appreciate some analysis and explanations in the field.
I am incredibly fortunate that a good friend of mine Jon Ruddy, birding expert and owner of Eastern Ontario Birding, fully embraced my shorebird ID skills improvement project. He sent me a couple of shorebird ID quizzes and helped me work through some specific issues that I had. I also went out with Jon and a group to Presqu’ile and we were able to work on some shorebird ID skills in the field.
I wouldn’t have become a shorebirder extraordinaire without the help of an expert. Thanks Jon!
Shorebird ID Skills Recap
- Change your perspective
- Study before going out in the field
- Focus on one group of shorebirds at a time
- Get out in the field as much as possible
- Slow down and go solo
- Go out with an expert
Becoming a shorebirder extraordinaire didn’t happen overnight (and if I’m honest, I still have more work to do). I made a commitment back in July to focus on this group and I followed through on my plan. I spent hours reading articles, poring over field guides and reviewing photographs online. I focused most of my birding efforts from August-October (with a small break for warbler migration) on shorebirds. When they didn’t show up in Ottawa, I went further afield to find them. I slowed down and spent time studying shorebirds in the field without anyone else around to distract me. Slowly but surely my work started to pay off and I gained a new confidence identifying this group.
Despite the work involved, I found the experience richly rewarding. I learned a new appreciation for this group of birds and I no longer feel immense frustration when I come across a mud flat full of tiny individuals probing its surface. With shorebird season coming to an end in my area, I’m already missing my daily #shorebirdworkout. I’ll try not to let my shorebird muscles wither over the winter.
Until next season…
-The Afternoon Birder (shorebirder extraordinaire)
p.s. I’ll be putting together a shorebird ID quiz to keep everyone in shorebird shape over the winter. Stay tuned!