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Speaking of Nature: Following the short-billed dowitcher’s flight

  • Notice the “short” bill of the short-billed dowitcher, a member of the sandpiper family. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • The banded bird illustrates a perfect example of the preferred feeding technique of the short-billed dowitcher: probing the sand in about 2 inches of water. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • DANIELSON



For the Recorder
Monday, September 10, 2018

At times, I believe our recent heat wave caused me to hallucinate. Stuck in a building with no air conditioning, I slipped into a sort of “vision quest” trance several days in a row. I talked about politics with my grandmother, who has been dead since 1990, and at one point I may have caught sight of Charles Darwin walking down the hall, but mostly I just imagined myself being somewhere else.

The most frequent destination for these mental field trips was Canada. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to go north, where it is cold? Then I would regain my composure and realize the folly of my fanciful thoughts. Canada may be appealing for the moment, but the vast majority of bird species that call Canada their home in the summer are already fleeing to the south to avoid the coming winter, which is no joke.

This idea was reinforced during my recent summertime visit to Cape Cod. Once again, I bring you to a place called First Encounter Beach where the difference between high tide and low tide is extraordinary. Once again, it is low tide and the water has receded to expose the most wonderful sand flats I have ever seen — huge expanses of soft, slightly squishy sand that offer amazing feeding opportunities for all manner of shorebirds.

I only spent a couple hours at First Encounter Beach when I visited the cape in August, but I captured images that could keep me writing for weeks. The ones I share with you today are of a species of bird known as the short-billed dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus); a species that I always look for in August and am very happy to see.

This species appears to have two distinct populations that breed either in eastern Canada or along the southern coast of Alaska. The Canadian birds breed in the middle latitudes of our northern neighbor, and they prefer open areas such as bogs, forest clearings or the edges of that great northern ecosystem known as the tundra. Dowitchers nest on the ground in a small cup-shaped depression that will be filled with three to four olive-brown eggs that are marked with darker splotches.

I found it interesting to read that while the responsibilities for incubating the eggs are divided between the members of a mated pair, the responsibility of looking after the chicks falls solely to the male. Apparently, the 21 days of incubation are quite enough for female dowitchers, and as soon as the chicks hatch, the females vamoose. However, it should be noted that quite a lot is not known about dowitchers, including when they fly for the first time.

What is known is that the chicks are precocial, which means their eyes are open and they are able to walk soon after hatching. I cannot imagine many things more heart-meltingly adorable than a little group of freshly hatched dowitcher chicks making their way through the world, following their fathers with the implicit trust of the purely innocent. The chicks have to find their own food, but their fathers look after them all the while.

It doesn’t take long for these little families to abandon their northern breeding grounds and start their long journeys to their wintering grounds. Both the western and eastern populations will head for the coasts of the United States and then start to spread out. Some will remain as far north as southern New Jersey in the east, or the northern border of California in the west, but the most adventurous will move as far south as Brazil.

The coasts of North, Central and South America will be painted with these birds and the daily cycle of the tides will govern their lives. Short-billed dowitchers prefer to forage in shallow water (an inch or two deep) where they can probe the soft bottom with their long bills and search for worms and other invertebrates.

It wasn’t until I was home, sorting though my photos, that I realized that I had captured images of a banded short-billed dowitcher out on the sand flats. The bird had a yellow “flag” with the letters CCM on one leg and an aluminum band on the other leg. This is proof that somewhere along its journey, from the breeding grounds to Cape Cod, this one bird was captured and banded by an ornithologist. In January, when we are all freezing, some lucky student may be on assignment in Rio, looking for dowitchers that decided to make the long trip. I’d like to officially volunteer for that job right now, please.

I searched the internet for information on bird bands with CCM, but all I came up with was a long list of sites advertising hockey equipment (CCM is a legendary brand). This wasn’t at all helpful in my efforts to understand bird banding, but it did take me once again on an imaginary field trip to Canada, where the air is cool and everyone plays hockey. What a wonderful place that must be!

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.