Which shorebird can be blown across the Atlantic to make very rare appearances in Britain?
Early during my birdwatching career, it was the more common species I recorded as I stayed close to home, but by the start of the 1960s, when I was 16, I discovered Spurn Point Bird Observatory where my expectations suddenly changed. I was on the pathway of hundreds of thousands of migrating birds and was surrounded by highly experienced birders who could tell me what I was seeing. There were unusual birds like the hawfinch, ring ouzel and black redstart; there were scarce species such as the ortolan bunting and icterine warbler; and I was fortunate to spot very rare species such as the surf scoter and black-browed albatross.
With the Humber Estuary nearby, there was also the possibility of finding the occasional very rare wader. One of these rarities happened to be the long-billed dowitcher, a shorebird related to snipes, and a member of the sandpiper family. It was so rare that it did not receive a mention in my first two bird books and the third gave it the alternative name of red-breasted snipe. Maybe there have been 100 sighting of this bird in the British Isles throughout time.
It is a tubby, medium-size, rugby ball shaped bird, measuring about 29cm/ 11 inches in length and 113 grams/4 ounces in weight, and transforms its appearance during the breeding season when its upper body turns rufous-brown and white, and its throat and breast become a bright cinnamon with dark scalloping. By contrast, during the fall and winter, the bird moults into rather dull gray feathers and a pale belly. I hoped to spot one by looking for its long beak that would be used with a rapid up and down motion, like a sewing machine, as it searched for food in the shallow water and wet mud of the Humber Estuary. I was unlucky, I never saw one.
That situation changed when I moved to the United States in 1979. I lived along the San Francisco Bay and near the wetlands of the Sacramento River. Like the Humber Estuary, there were hundreds of thousands of waders visiting during the fall and winter. Apparently there is an estimated 500,000 long-billed dowitchers in North America and most breed among the desolate insect-infested tundra along the high Arctic, ranging along the northern coastlines of Canada and Alaska. They travel south for the winter, mainly down the west coast, and settle as far away as Central America. Their preferred habitat is fresh water, both along the Bay and delta and including California’s rivers and lakes. Flocks can be seen feeding and twittering at each other at the same time. It is the occasional bird that is traveling south that gets caught up in storms and bad weather and is blown the 2,600 miles (4,200km) across the Atlantic to the British Isles and Europe.
The name of the bird possibly comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect for “German” to distinguish it from the English-named variety, the Wilson’s snipe. Duitscher is their word for German. Back in 1950, American ornithologists identified a separate species of this bird that they called the short-billed dowitcher. The two species are difficult to distinguish although the short-billed prefers a habitat of saltwater and the long-billed is usually found in freshwater.
And so by settling in California, I was able to see a species that had evaded me in Britain. Both the long-billed and short-billed are common during winter, feeding on the mudflats and wetlands, and only a few minutes drive away from my home.
Spotting vagrants in Britain, like the dowitcher, will likely reveal to you the existence of twitchers (the two words are not related!). These are birders who are willing to travel long distances, immediately, and without hesitation, when a rare bird is reported so that they can add it to their Life List of bird species seen. They sometimes prefer to record birds that other people spot rather than pursue birds on their own. The term apparently originated in Britain during the 1950s because of the nervous behavior of a well-known ornithologist who would chase down unusual species at short notice. “Twitcher” is in popular use in Britain and Europe but is less well known in North America. However, as more and more birders travel internationally, the use of the designation is spreading.
The behavior is global as shown recently when a yellow-crowned night heron (known locally as the “crab-eater”), was suddenly spotted on the shoreline at Sausalito, CA. It quickly attracted a following and was reported in the local press. The bird’s normal distribution is on the Gulf coast, along the Mississippi valley , and in parts of Mexico and South America; it rarely reaches the latitude of the San Francisco Bay Area. Maybe its appearance is another consequence of global warming?