The Long-billed and the Short-billed Dowitcher can both be found in Tennessee, especially during fall migration, but it's the Short-billed that is more often encountered. These medium to large-sized shorebirds both have very long bills. The Short-billed's bill is only short in comparison to the Long-billed Dowitcher's bill, and the bill of the female Short-billed is the same length of that of the male Long-billed! Their rapid probing in the mud while foraging is often described as like a "sewing-machine." Both will forage day or night, and readily swim. Range, habitat, and vocalizations should all be used to help distinguish between these two species. The Short-billed Dowitcher breeds nearly from coast to coast across boreal and subarctic regions of Canada and Alaska, and winters along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts from Oregon and Virginia to Peru and Brazil.
Description: This medium to large-sized shorebird has a bill that is twice as long as its head, and moderately long, pale legs. In flight, it shows a distinctive white blaze up its back, as does the Long-billed Dowitcher. In spring breeding plumage (April-August) it is reddish below and mottled-brown above; in fall (September-April) it is gray above and pale below. Immature birds (July-November) have a buffy chest and flanks, but are more plain than breeding adults. A key to distinguishing immature Short-billeds from Long-billeds is that the tertials of the Short-billeds are "tiger-striped," rather than plain with rusty edges. The female has a longer bill than the male.
Weight: 3.9 oz.
Voice: Call is lower than that of the Long-billed Dowitcher, and is a liquid, rapid, slightly descending kewtutu.
- Wilson's Snipe has similar proportions, but has a dark rump and tail, and golden stripes down back.
- Stilt Sandpiper has longer legs, a shorter, slightly down-curved bill, and a white rump that does not extend up the back.
- Long-billed Dowitcher is extremely similar and difficult to distinguish in most plumages, but tends to stand more upright at rest. Juvenile Long-billed lacks the tiger-striping in the tertials, and has plain gray ones instead. See link below for more information on distinguishing these two species.
Habitat: In Tennessee, Found on mud flats and along lakes and ponds.
Diet: Aquatic invertebrates.
Nesting and reproduction: Neither Short-billed nor Long-billed Dowitchers have ever nested in Tennessee.
Status in Tennessee: The Short-billed Dowitcher is a regular uncommon migrant found across the state. It is more likely encountered in fall than spring, and expected in the state from late April to mid-May, and from mid-July to late September.
Dynamic map of Short-billed Dowitcher eBird observations in Tennessee
- Perhaps because the main breeding grounds of both species of Dowitchers are in difficult-to-reach, mosquito and black fly-infested tundra, the first eggs and nests were not discovered until 1906. It was not until the late 1950s that they were split into two species.
- Dowitchers were known to early American ornithologists like John James Audubon (1785-1851) and Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), as the Red-breasted Snipe, while hunters called it the Brownback. The name Dowitcher may have originated on Long Island among Dutch and German immigrant hunters. Early ornithologist and surgeon Elliott Coues (1842 -1899) wrote that "dowitcher or ‘dowitch' is derived from ‘Deutscher' or ‘Duitsch,' which referred to the ‘German' or ‘Dutch' snipe," to distinguish it from what we now know as the Common Snipe of Eurasia.
- The oldest known Short-billed Dowitcher was 13 years 2 months old.
Best places to see in Tennessee:
For more information:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology - All About Birds
New advances in the field identification of dowitchers at surfbirds.com
Jehl, J. R., Jr., J. Klima, and R. E. Harris. Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus). The Birds of North America, No. 564 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.