Grays Harbor Birds — Long-billed Dowitcher

Size: 11.5 inches

General Description: The Long-billed Dowitcher is very difficult to distinguish from the Short-billed Dowitcher — they are both found here on the Harbor, they both have the same reddish underparts and mottled brown above in their breeding plumage. The female of both species has a longer bill than the male, with the female of the Short-billed having the same size bill as the male of the Long-billed. In flight, they both show a pale trailing edge on their wings, and they both have a white rump-patch. Some of the distinguishing differences are the Long-billed prefers fresh water, the breeding plumage is more barring than spotting on the side of its breast in front of the wing, the belly of the Long-billed is typically reddish all the way back while the Short-billed has some white, and the Long-billed flock maintains a constant chatter while the Short-billed flocks are silent.

Habitat: Long-billed Dowitchers are typically found in fresh-water pools during migration and winter, or in more brackish, mud-bottomed marshes; standing water on golf courses are good places to look.

Behavior: These birds walk slowly probing the mud and shallow water in an up and down movement like a sewing machine, often immersing their entire head in water or mud. Their bills are full of nerve endings for sensing their prey. They are usually found in small flocks or a few in mixed flocks with other dowitchers and godwits. Huge flocks of Short-billed Dowitchers often contain a few Long-billed.

Diet: On the local mudflats, Long-billed Dowitchers eat mollusks, crustaceans, marine worms, and other aquatic invertebrates. On our golf courses, they eat insect larvae, insects, and worms.

Nesting: Long-billed Dowitchers nest on Arctic tundra grass and wet meadows on a small rise on the ground near shallow water. The fairly deep scrape is lined with decayed grass, sedge, or moss, and the bottom is often wet. The pair both incubate four eggs for 21 to 22 days, The young leave the nest within a day of hatching and can find their own food, but the female usually leaves the group soon after the eggs hatch. The male continues to care for the young until they fledge at 20 to 30 days. There is only one brood per year.

Migration Status: Long-billed Dowitchers migrate down the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, with some first-year birds staying on their wintering grounds throughout the summer. Adults begin their migration through Washington in early July, but the largest number migrate later in the fall. They can over-winter anywhere along our coast, and then even as far south as Guatemala.

Conservation Status: The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates the population at about 500,000 birds. While they are not abundant anywhere in Washington, they are fairly common and widespread. Their breeding territory has spread into Siberia, but it is not known if this is a shift of breeding territories or an expansion.

Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Long-billed Dowitcher adults are common from July through mid-September in coastal marshes and estuaries, and are often seen all winter. Juveniles start migrating through in mid-August and are common through October. The spring migration is only the first weeks in May.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon