To refresh your memory, here is the photo from November’s Bird Quiz. The bird was seen in Florida during the month of January. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
Shorebirds can be intimidating, but this one really isn’t that hard to identify. To begin with, we already know it’s a shorebird. That eliminates most of the field guide! And while many sandpipers and their relatives can look very similar, this isn’t one of the hardest ones.
Since most shorebirds are approximately the same color, especially in the winter months when they aren’t breeding, we need to look at other characteristics—usually the beak and legs. Once we have those features clearly in mind, we can check for any other identifying marks.
In this case, we can’t see the beak. Darn. However, the legs are medium-length, short when compared to birds such as Willets and yellow-legs, longer than Sanderlings and Snowy Plovers. While it does have its feet wet, we’re unlikely to find it wading in deep water. While the lighting was dreary, we can also see that the legs and feet are a dark, charcoal gray. That’s helpful.
There’s one other field mark that I found extremely helpful when I initially identified this bird. See that square black patch on the bird’s side, under the folded wing? We’ll come back to that in a moment.
As is often the case when dealing with shorebirds, I had to pull out my field guide. Maybe if I saw them more often, I’d have everything memorized, but we only make it to the beach once a year—if we’re lucky. And this was only my second trip to Florida. I needed help.
Different guides take different approaches to comparing species. Sibley likes to put all the birds of one type at the beginning of each section, then revisit them individually. National Geographic just crams a lot of similar birds onto one page. Either way, the first order of business is to narrow down our options.
Going by the length and color of its legs and its basic “shorebird-ness,” I decided this bird was either one of the medium-sized plovers or a medium-sized sandpiper. While birds do get around, I also decided to stick with birds that winter in Florida, at least to start with. If none of the usual suspects panned out, I’d try some rarities.
My list of candidates included: Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, Red Knot, Dunlin, Baird’s Sandpiper, and White-rumped Sandpiper (although they have shorter legs, so that was unlikely). That’s not too long a list, but we need some way to know which one is correct. Let’s revisit that black patch I mentioned earlier.
Interestingly, none of the illustrations in my Sibley’s field guide show the patch. At first I thought it must be peculiar to that individual bird, but when I looked around, I realized that—and you couldn’t know this from my picture—there were many of these birds on the beach, and they all had that black showing. So why didn’t Sibley include it in any of his pictures?
Stymied, I pulled out my other field guide, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. It’s also an excellent guide; I just happen to prefer Sibley’s most of the time. However, in this case it proved invaluable, and a good example why having more than one field guide and/or birding app is a Very Good Idea.
I again looked up each of the birds on my list. One, and only one, had that little black spot. Apparently, it’s only visible during the non-breeding season. That made it easy. (See, I told you!) It’s a Black-bellied Plover.
Here’s another photo of the same bird. You can see the distinctly plover-like beak in this one.
And here’s a picture of it in flight, plus a photo of a different bird (this one in California), showing it molting into its breeding plumage. They’re easy to identify in the spring and summer!