Shorebird identification….

…or the moment where you realize you are still very much a birding amateur, because shorebird identification is incredibly frustrating without an expert handy. Killdeer, check. Ones with black bands of patterns are easy enough to narrow down. Everything else is some mix of brown and white.

On an urban reservoir with a small mudflat, a tiny group of shorebirds swooped around, lapped the other side, and cheeped their way into landing near me. I immediately start making observations – feeding behavior, rapid probing and then moving to a new spot. Size, very small. White breasts. Dark bill (or was it the mud?). Brown and white patterning on the back. Some individuals were reddish brown and others were just brown. Now the conundrum is, are there 2 species? Or same species with different morphs? (Final answer – Least sandpiper, adults and juveniles)

Photo by author, 2017. One bird in foreground, one in background.

Before I can decide to enter my observations into Merlin with hopes of identifying these winged marvels, three more shorebirds pop into view. Killdeer, easy enough. At least there’s one thing I can not over-analyze.

The other one is bobbing its tail up and down as it goes, same as six I saw in Newfoundland. I know I’ve identified that bird but don’t remember the name. The bobbing behavior will make it easy to come back to later. (Spotted Sandpiper, in case the suspense too much to take.)

The other one is confounding. Legs are dark, but are they dark because that’s their color or because of the mud? Same question as above. I went with Solitary Sandpiper, but wish there’d been an expert at my elbow to decode the key clues for me.

These are the moments when I realize that identification, contrary to Bloom’s taxonomy, can be one of the hardest things to do.

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