3. The long-billed dowitcher (also known as the red-breasted snipe or brownback)
Since most of the world’s estimated 500,000 long-billed dowitchers breed in North America, we prefer to be called shorebirds rather than by the British term wader. In the United States, the word wader refers only to long-legged birds such as storks and herons whereas our legs are short and slender. We rarely appear in Europe but do occasionally turn up thanks to the north Atlantic weather that pushes a few of us across the ocean during our autumn migration. Unfortunately, Europeans talk about us as vagrants because we turn up miles from where we’re supposed to be, but it’s a word that implies we don’t have a home to go to and that we live by begging. Neither is true.
We are chunky, medium-sized, rugby ball shaped members of the sandpiper family (about 29cm/ 11 inches in length; 113 grams/4 ounces in weight) and appear good-looking during the breeding season when our upper body turns rufous-brown and white, and our throat and breast turn a bright cinnamon with dark scalloping. A banding of black and white appears on our tail feathers. By contrast, we molt for winter into rather dull gray feathers and a pale belly. Our beak is long, straight and used for probing shallow water or wet mud in search of food. You can watch us feeding using a rapid up-and-down motion that looks like we’re operating the needle of a sewing machine. Long toes allow us to walk on top of the mud.
I should also mention our close relative, the short-billed dowitcher, who we are often confused with. They look like us, eat like us, and despite their name, have a long beak like us. Fortunately, we don’t compete for the same food. They prefer saltwater whereas we feed in freshwater ponds, sewage treatment areas, marshes, other non-saline water, and the upper parts of estuaries. We also make a different noise; they use a staccato “tu-tu-tu” call while we use short, sharp cries of “keek” or “peet-peet”.
You might wonder about the origins of our name. It is thought to have come from the Iriquois Indians although there is an alternative suggestion that it was given to us by early New World hunters who used “duitscher” as their dialect for German and thought we looked similar to the German snipe.
We stay away from humans by nesting in desolate insect-infested tundra along the high Arctic, ranging along the northern coastlines of Canada and Alaska, and as far away as eastern Siberia. Finding a mate is a competitive process; several males will band together to chase after a female, and we call out loudly as we fly around her. Once mated, we fight off any other male that shows an interest in our partner. She lays her eggs on the ground, usually in sedge or wet meadows, and the nest is cup-shaped, made of marsh grasses and moss, and lined with small leaves. The incubation duties are shared. Once hatched, the chicks quickly leave the nest to feed themselves. I sometimes stay behind for a few days to keep an eye on them while my partner begins her migration south.
We mainly migrate through the western half of North America, often accomplishing the journey in one stage, whereas our close relatives stop and start several times. We thrive during winter among the network of wetlands in California, although some of us continue as far south as the south-eastern states and Central America. We are one of the last species to migrate.
The challenge during the autumn migration is to avoid the northern storms that can blow individual birds, especially juveniles, way off course and even across the Atlantic, more than 2,600 miles (4200km) to Britain, and beyond. This creates surprise appearances in Europe where individual birds may stay for long periods. It takes only a short period of time after arrival to attract the attention of humans. As a rare vagrant, we quickly stimulate interest among a group of birdwatchers known as “twitchers”, who travel instantly to sites where the sighting of a rare species is reported. The purpose is to add that species to their Life List (the list of birds they have personally seen and identified during their lifetime).