How to Tell Apart Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers

Oh the joy of identifying shorebirds. In this post I will give you some tips to differentiate one of the most difficult pair of birds.

The Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitcher are extremely similar in appearance and are both common all over the United States and other places. Using colors and feather patterns is a possible method to ID these large shorebirds, but it isn’t very reliable. Given that Dowitchers change in plumage so much throughout the years, colors and patterns vary substantially. I will tell you about a method that is always reliable when identifying these two birds.

You can disregard colors and feather patterns when you rely on shape and structure to ID them. This trick can be applied to all shorebirds, but it is especially effective when dealing with Dowitchers.

1. Bill shape: The Short-billed Dowitcher has a unique field mark on its bill that is very helpful. Some birders call it “bill stuck in the door.” Because the end of the SBDO’s bill is kinked as if it had been caught in a door. The kink in the bill is a great field mark to help along with the ID, but at long distances this is hard to use.

2. Structure: Now we got on to the best field mark I have learned so far for Dowitchers. Focusing on the belly, look at pictures and notice the difference between Long-billed and Short-billed. The belly of the Long-billed looks like it has a grapefruit in it! However, the Short-billed Dowitcher has a better formed under carriage, and looks more lean than the grapefruit bellied Long-billed Dowitcher. Sometimes the structure is hard to tell, so the “stuck in the door” bill field mark is vital in helping the ID.

3. Angle When Sleeping: If you ever find a group of Dowitchers sleeping ( which happens fairly often) you can use the angle that they stand at as a field mark. The Long-billed Dowitchers will be tilting backwards at about a 40 degree angle. You will see the difference fairly easily if you saw them side by side. The reason is because of the Long-billed’s belly! Since it is rather front heavy, the LBDO has to lean back further when sleeping to avoid tipping over.

TEST YOURSELF: Here is a picture of a Dowitcher taken in Georgia in Spring time. Based on what you just read, what do you think this bird is?


n One of the first things you should look for is the kink in the bill. Remember Short-billed Dowitchers have a kink in the bill like it was stuck a door. Is the bill bent? Yes! That’s one field mark that suggests Short-billed.

Next we look at the structure. Does it look like it has a grapefruit in its belly? No it doesn’t, the weight is distributed evenly.

Based on those two field marks, we have enough to ID this bird as a SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER.

I hope this post will help you with this tough ID when out in the field. Happy birding everyone!

- John Mark

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