A Beginner’s Guide to Wader Identification. Part 1

It’s that time of year again!

Waders (or shorebirds) are on the move southwards after a busy but brief breeding season in the tundras of the far north. For the next 7-8 months, they’ll be a feature of shorelines throughout much of the tropics and the southern hemisphere.Wader id 2

Before I go any further, I’d better define my terms! Waders/shorebirds are a subset of a much larger groups known as waterbirds. Waterbirds include gulls and terns, herons and egrets, ducks, grebes and many others. Waders (the British term) or shorebirds (the more commonly used term in the US) are the small, predominantly brown and white birds with longish legs which scuttle around on mudflats at low tide. That’s a very simple unscientific but hopefully easy-to-understand definition! In the picture above, all the birds are waterbirds, but only the small brown ones wading around in the mud are waders…or shorebirds – get the picture?

One of the first problems facing the would-be wader-watcher is the bewildering variety, not only of birds, but also of field guide illustrations! On average, a good regional field guide shows around fifty wader species which could occur. Some people might take one look at the book and the array of possibilities and give up! But there are ways of greatly increasing the odds of making a correct identification.

In the rest of this series, I’ll reproduce an article originally published in Suara Enggang Vol 19/2 in June 2011. The words and text are mine but the design wizardry is by Chin Pik Wun! As always, click the images for a clearer view.

Wader id 1

wader id 3Here’s one to practice on. Using the tips in 2. above, assuming this is the first time you’ve ever looked at waders, and you know nothing about them, what could you say about this group? Before reading on, click on the picture to enlarge it and then jot down anything and everything you notice, using the tips in point 2 above as a guide.

I. SIZE: There seem to be 2 sizes here – three smaller birds and 7 slightly larger ones.

II. SHAPE AND STRUCTURE: There are at least three types of bill: i) short, straight, thick, blunt-ended, less than 1x head length ii) medium length, straight, tapering to a fine tip, about 1x head length iii) long, thin upward curving, 1-2 x head length.

You can do the same thing with the legs, and also the body shape, noting the difference between the rather fat, upright stance of some birds and the more slender, horizontal stance of others. This is easier to appreciate in real live moving birds than ‘frozen’ photographs.

Once you can identify one of the species with certainty, then you have a baseline to compare the others to (e.g. supposing you identify the long-upcurved billed birds as Terek Sandpipers, you can then judge whether the others are smaller, larger or about the same size). This really helps to narrow down the possibilities.

III. BEHAVIOUR (which includes where the birds are.) These are right on the tideline of what looks like a sandy, or mixed sand and mud beach. If you could see them moving, you could note whether they walk or run, move constantly or in a stop-start motion, in flocks or singly, whether they feed off the surface or probe below the surface, and what they seem to be feeding on.

IV. PROBABILITY. You can find out from books, the internet and more experienced wader-watchers what the most likely species are in your area. In this case, it’s a beach in western Sarawak.

V. COLOUR. Rather than looking at details straight away (that may come later!), it helps to start by noticing ‘blocks and patterns’. For example, in the photo above, the larger, ‘fatter’ birds behind seem be rather plain brown ‘above’. They also have a distinct ‘collar’ round the front of the neck and a bit of a pale eyebrow above a brown mask that runs through the eye. The 2 smaller birds in the centre look much paler overall, and to be rather ‘mottled’ and grey above, to have only a diffuse pale grey collar, and a darker ‘shoulder’ at the front bend of the wing. The long-billed birds have orange legs (be careful with colours – perceptions, light and individual variation can play a part, and of course, mud can conceal leg and bill colour completely! Some might say these legs are yellow or even red. But at least we can agree they are brightly coloured, and not black!)

I’m not saying that by observing all these details you will immediately be able to identify every wader you see. But hopefully, this exercise shows you that, with a little observation and effort, you can actually say quite a lot about the birds you see (and it helps greatly to remember by writing notes). If you make a habit of visiting the same site regularly over the coming migratory season, and following this process of observation, you’ll soon be able to identify the commoner species with confidence. Once you have a few key species to compare others with, the identification of other, less commonly seen species becomes much easier.


4 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Wader Identification. Part 1

  1. Thanks. I’m looking forward to this. I’ve gotten beyond the total panic I initially had looking at all those little brown and white birds, and your blog has been a help. I definitely agree with what you say about going back to the same place again and again – it helped a lot. I couldn’t get out very regularly and was amazed at how the birds there changed so much every few weeks. Still over a few years, I started to get the broad outlines. I’m just beyond total beginner now I suppose.

    So, are there 5 species here? Or will you tell us that later? (There are two pairs of birds that I can’t decide whether they are same species or different.) I’m pretty sure there are at least 4 there.

  2. Sorry Gretchen, I just saw this. Well, first of all, there are 2 basic families: plovers, with short thick bills, fat bodies and large heads; and sandpipers, with longer, thin bills (of various lengths).

    Narrowing it down further, there are 2 types of plover (3 large birds at the back and 1 smaller one on the right);
    and 2 types of sandpiper – 1 with the very long upcurved bill and 1 with a shorter straight bill (and whitish plumage).

    At the specific level, there are:

    Greater Sand Plover (the 3 at the back)
    Kentish Plover (the small one on the right)

    Terek Sandpiper (the 4 with long upcurved bills)
    Sanderling (the 2 with the short straight bill and whitish plumage

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