Shorebird Identification Tips

Mixed Shorebird Flock
Gregory Breese / USFWS

There are many types of shorebirds and learning to identify them can be a challenge. These birds often flock together and have similar plumage and behavior, but birders who carefully observe the birds and put together multiple clues can become more confident about their shorebird identification.

Shorebird Identification Equipment

To properly identify shorebirds, it is necessary to have the appropriate equipment.

  • Optics: A good pair of birding binoculars is essential for identifying shorebirds, many of which are skittish about humans who approach too closely. Binoculars with a stronger magnification will allow you to see the birds more clearly at a greater distance, giving you the opportunity to note subtle differences in size, shape, and plumage for correct identification. Spotting scopes are also a superb choice if you plan on observing shorebirds.
  • Field Guide: A detailed field guide should show different plumage variations for common shorebirds, including both breeding and winter plumages. Specialized shorebird identification guides are also available and typically go into more detail, particularly for less common shorebird species.
  • Recordings: Interpreting bird sounds can be useful when trying to tell apart similar birds, and studying recordings of shorebird calls can be very helpful with field identifications.
  • Camera: A good quality camera with a sufficient zoom can be invaluable for identifying shorebirds. Take a number of photos of the bird from as many angles as possible, capturing different postures and behaviors, and those photos can be carefully and leisurely examined after birding to confirm identifications.

Identifying Shorebirds on Sight

While many shorebirds may at first appear similar, if not identical, there are subtle differences in their appearance that can be vital clues to their identities. Answering questions about the birds’ appearance is the first step to proper shorebird identification.

  • Size: Is the bird large or small? How do the proportions of the head and body compare? How does one bird compare to others in the flock?
  • Head: What plumage markings are visible on the head? Is there an eye line, eyebrow or forehead band? Are there any patches on the cheeks? Does the bird have a distinct cap? Are the feathers uniform or is there a crest?
  • Bill: How long is the bill in comparison to the bird’s head or body? Is it a uniform color or does it change color at the tip or base? Does the bill curve up or down for the entire length, at the tip, or is it straight? How thick is the bill?
  • Upperparts: What colors are on the bird’s back and wings? Is it plain or mottled? What are the sizes and shapes of spots, if any? Are any distinct patches or stripes visible?
  • Underparts: When comparing the bird’s chest, abdomen, and flanks, are they clear or spotted? Is there are a color wash or any distinct markings such as a breast band or necklace?
  • Wings: Are there any markings visible on the wings when folded or in flight? Are the edges of the wings or the tips of the primary feathers lighter or darker?
  • Tail: Are any markings visible on the tail when at rest or in flight? What color is the bird’s rump?
  • Legs: How long are the bird’s legs, and what color are they?
  • Neck: How long is the bird’s neck compared to its overall body size and proportions? Is the neck thick or thin? What markings or colors are visible on the neck?

If you have the opportunity to observe shorebirds for long periods of time, you may be able to answer all these questions about a single bird and therefore pin down its identity quite easily. Shorebirds, however, tend to be active and energetic, and simple observation is not always sufficient for a positive identification.

Other Ways to Identify Shorebirds

In addition to visual clues, shorebirds can be identified in other ways. Learning additional clues can help birders be positive about a shorebird species even if the plumage is indistinct.

  • Range and Habitat: While shorebirds can be found on nearly any coastline, beach or sandbar, different birds have radically different geographical distributions in different seasons. Many species nest in the Arctic, but will scatter to different coastlines in the winter. Vagrant and stray birds do occur, but checking a range map is a good way to narrow down a shorebird’s possible identity.
  • Behavior: How a bird behaves can be one way to identify it. Watch to see if a puzzling shorebird is wading in the water or just probing in the sand, and observe what it eats if possible. Check the bird’s movement speed and how it reacts to the approach of other birds or predators, such as whether or not it runs away, takes flight or engages in a distraction display.
  • Sounds: Learning shorebird sounds and practicing good birding by ear techniques can help you recognize shorebirds by their different calls, some of which can be more distinct than different birds’ appearances.

Even experienced birders have difficulty identifying shorebirds, but if you carefully study the birds and take note of their respective ranges, behaviors, and calls, you can gradually become more confident whenever you see a bird running along the shore or wading nearby.

Photo – Shorebirds © Gregory Breese / USFWS