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Monday, March 31, 2014

Birding the Extraordinary: Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, Pacific Golden Plover, Pied Avocet and more ..

[India, Winter 2013]

Shorebirds are generally drab (in basic plumage), mud-flat loving, sandpiper-like birds comprising over 200 species. As a group, shorebirds (known confusingly as "waders" in the Old World) are popular with birders because of the diversity of the constituent species and the identification challenges they present (eg., short-billed vs long-billed dowitcher, semipalmated vs. western sandpiper, etc). The bi-annual migrations of shorebirds complement that of the songbirds and waterfowl and present an opportunity to observe them both in their basic and alternate plumage.

In this post, the following species, observed in India over Winter break, will be profiled:
  1. Ruff
  2. Black-tailed Godwit
  3. Pied Avocet
  4. Eurasian Curlew
  5. Marsh Sandpiper
  6. Wood Sandpiper
  7. Greenshank
  8. Common Redshank
  9. Spotted Redshank
  10. Black-winged Stilt
  11. Pacific Golden Plover
  12. Grey Plover
  13. Little-ringed Plover
  14. Common Ringed Plover
  15. Kentish Plover 
  16. Lesser Sand Plover
  17. Greater Sand Plover
  18. Little Stint
  19. Temminck's Stint
  20. Curlew Sandpiper
  21. Common Sandpiper
[Note that Lapwings and Jacanas, which are also classified with the shorebirds, have been covered separately]

Two Ruff seen at Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat
The Ruff (female: Reeve) is indisputably one of the most interesting shorebirds on the planet.

Ruff seen at Chandlai, Rajasthan

About the size of a Willet, Ruffs in breeding plumage look nothing their winter form. When breeding, Ruffs develop an elaborate feathered collar around their necks, "wigs" on their heads, tiny wattles on their face plus richly colored chestnut plumes. In winter plumage, they can be recognized by their yellow/orange legs, goose-shaped body, and white-edging to their feathers.

Ruffs are rare vagrants to the US mainland but small numbers are sometimes found in Alaska (on St. Paul Island and Barrow).

Black-tailed Godwit seen near  Sambhar Lake

Of the 4 species of Godwit, 2 are exclusively American (the Marbled and Hudsonian) while the Black-tailed and the Bar-tailed are of the Old World. The Bar-tailed is also occasionally seen in the US and is famously known as the record-holder for non-stop long distance migration (flying continuously over 7,000 miles).

Black-tailed Godwit seen near Sambhar Lake, Rajasthan

The Black-tailed Godwit is the only species of Godwit that is not classified as "Least Concern"; its population has shown steady declines; especially in Europe.

Like other godwit species, the Black-tailed has a long pink bill that's slightly up-curved. While dark orange in breeding plumage, in winter, the Black-tailed turns a light grey with pale underparts.

Pied Avocets roosting near Sultanpur National Park, Haryana

A casual observer could be forgiven for mistaking the Pied Avocet with the American Avocet in winter plumage; however, a closer look shows a few key differences: for one, the Pied Avocet has an obvious black cap that extends down to its nape (much like a tern); and, second, the wings of the Pied appear mostly white with black edging while the American's are mainly black with a white patch.

Pied Avocet seen near Sambhar Lake, Rajasthan

There are 4 species of Avocets in the world and the Pied is the most widely distributed -- it breeds across Northern Europe and Asia while over-wintering in Africa and Southern Asia. The global population is estimated to be about half a million.

Eurasian Curlew seen in coastal Goa

The Eurasian Curlew is a "Near Threatened" species of curlew. As a whole, the 8 species of curlew have not fared well. The Eskimo Curlew, once found in the millions, is already extinct and the Slender-billed Curlew is feared to have met the same fate. The Bristle-thigh Curlew global population only numbers 7,000 and it faces several threats in its wintering grounds in the Pacific.

Marsh Sandpiper seen at Chandlai

Marsh Sandpiper is an extremely elegant tringa sandpiper with yellow legs and a very fine, needle-like bill. They breed in Central Asia and winter in India and elsewhere.

Wood Sandpiper seen near Sultanpur, Haryana
Wood Sandpiper seen near Sultanpur, Haryana

Similar in appearance to our Solitary Sandpiper, the Wood Sandpiper is a common winter visitor to the subcontinent as well as Australia where I was fortunate enough to observe it at Werribbee.

Common Greenshank seen at Marine National Park, Gujarat

The closest relative of the Greater Yellowlegs, the Common Greenshank bears many visual similarities to its American relative. Note however the slight upturn of the bill.
Common Redshank seen near Sambhar Lake, Rajasthan

Talking about identification challenges with shorebirds -- it was a bit of a struggle to tell the Common Redshank (above) apart from the Spotted Redshank (below):

Spotted Redshank seen in Haryana

The Spotted Redshank will have a more prominent white supercilium, a dark eyestripe and a longer bill with a black upper mandible showing a slight droop at the end.

Applying these identification aids, the shorebird above would be a Spotted Redshank (?)

Black-winged Stilt seen in Haryana

Fortunately, unlike the perplexing redshanks, the identification of the Stilt family is straightforward: black wings on a white body with pink legs equals the Black-winged Stilt (plus black neck equals Black-necked Stilt!).

Pacific Golden Plover seen in Goa

Pacific Golden Plover's stronghold is in Asia; however, it is a breeder in Western Alaska and a small number of birds winter in California. Good luck if you have to tell this species apart from the American Golden Plover and/or the European Golden Plover in winter plumage!

Pacific Golden Plover seen in Goa

The Grey Plover (known as the Black-bellied Plover over here), is very widely distributed and found across both the New and Old Worlds.

Grey Plover seen at Sambhar Lake

Little Ringed Plover

Little Ringed Plover is a tiny 6 inch shorebird with a single neckband, a black mask, and bold yellow eyerings. When compared to the similar Common Ringed Plover (below), some distinguishing features arise:

Common Ringed Plover seen at Chandlai

First off, leg color -- Common Ringed has orange legs; second: the prominent orange eyerings of the Little Ringed are absent in the Common Ringed. Indeed, the slightly larger Common Ringed Plover looks very similar to our Semipalmated Plover. While both these plovers belong to the Old World, it is a little known fact that the Common Ringed Plover is also a breeder in NE Canada.

Kentish Plover seen at Marine National Park, Gujarat

Just as the Common Ringed Plover is a cousin of the Semipalmated Plover, the Kentish Plover is related to the Snowy Plover. Indeed, the 2 species were considered conspecific until 2009.

Lesser Sand Plover seen at Marine National Park

The next identification conundrum is between the Lesser Sand Plover and the Greater Sand Plover. The Greater is slightly larger but size is difficult to judge unless the species happen to be adjacent. The best aids are then bill size (Greater Sand Plover's bill is very much like our Wilson's -- longer and thicker); color (the Lesser is darker) and leg color (the Greater Sand Plover's is more yellow).

Greater Sand Plover seen at Marine National Park

Next -- 2 Stints -- Little Stint and Temminck's Stint. Little Stint looks very much like our Semipalmated Sandpiper. Its best differentiation with the slightly larger Temminck's Stint is the leg color -- Temminck's is yellowish:

Little Stint seen at Chandlai

Temminck's Stint seen in Haryana

Temminck's Stint seen at Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat

We end with a couple of familiar-looking sandpipers:

Curlew Sandpiper seen at Marine National Park

Common Sandpiper seen near Sambhar Lake

Curlew Sandpiper (vaguely resembling Dunlin) is aptly named given the pronounced droop and length of the bill; it breeds in the Siberian tundra and overwinters in Asia, Australia and Africa. The Common Sandpiper resembles our Spotted Sandpiper to which it is closely related. It is widely distributed across Europe and Asia.

The "good news" about observing shorebirds is that they are relatively easy to observe -- unlike songbirds which are frequently obscured by foliage or hidden high up in the canopy, shorebirds are readily found in coastal or freshwater mudflats in the right season. The "bad news" is that although easy to observe, identification can be a challenge for many species are quite similar. Examples highlighted here include Little Ringed vs. Common Ringed Plover; Lesser Sand Plover vs. Greater Sand Plover; and, Common Redshank vs. Spotted Redshank.

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