by Frank Keim
Don’t be fooled by the English name for this shorebird, because it certainly does not have a short bill. Like its first cousin, the Long-billed dowitcher, especially the female has one of the longest bills in the sandpiper family.
And, yes, the Short-billed dowitcher is so similar to its long-billed cousin that both species have exactly the same Yup’ik names, Uluarpagneq (and two similar variations) in Hooper Bay and Chevak; and Qayaguaq (and two similar variations) in Lower Yukon River villages, including Scammon Bay.
If you look closely, though, there are differences between the two species. The male Short-bill’s plumage is less cinnamon-colored in spring, and the female’s bill is not quite as long as her female cousin’s. They also have softer calls than their lookalikes and don’t twitter among themselves while feeding in flocks.
Something else that distinguishes them is where they prefer to feed and nest. Long-bills like freshwater ponds and marshlands, but Short-bills prefer tidal saltwater mudflats and wetlands and brackish water marshes. Short-bills also roost in flocks during high tide and low tide, since they prefer to forage in open mudflats while the tide is falling or rising when only a couple of inches of water covers the bottom. This is because they have such a sensitive bill and the mud is soft enough during the tidal flows for their bills to probe and feel the slightest vibration from the wriggly little critters that live underneath.
As soon as these shorebirds return to Alaska and the YK Delta from their winter homes as far south as coastal South America, the males immediately search for suitable snow-free nesting and feeding territories near the coast and subject to the ebb and flow of the tides.
The birds are unpaired when they first arrive, so the male must perform to attract a mate. So, he either perches on a tall willow or stunted birch and energetically sings his grating bubbly song or flies with quivering wings singing the same song above a female watching below. Females sometimes join a displaying male in flight, observing very closely whether he has the necessary traits that will serve to continue the line of their species into the future.
Once the female makes her choice, they prepare for nesting. The pair is monogamous and stays close together during the course of their nesting. If a rival male appears, the male chases him in flight or charges him on foot with head lowered and tail raised, giving low warning calls.
Meanwhile the female selects a nest site, probably from several options offered by the male, on a low tundra meadow or bog of sedge or cotton grass at or near treeline and close to water but away from the edge of any water body that may experience tidal surges. The nest is a well-hidden, often mossy depression in the bog or meadow built by the male, using his belly to form a bowl in the middle of the vegetation. He lines the nest with feathers, dry grasses, twigs and soft plant matter.
After laying four olive-buff to brown, dark splotched eggs, the female and her mate take turns incubating the eggs, although, as with their lookalike cousins, the female broods less and less toward the end of the three-week incubation period, then after the eggs hatch she departs the scene, leaving the chicks in the care of their dad.
Fortunately, the young are born with downy feathers to keep them warm, and are able to walk immediately. As soon as they all hatch and their feathers dry, they leave the nest. At that point, they’re not only able to feed themselves but can also swim. Dad is just there to supervise and brood them at night or during inclement weather. He also serves as a good example for what and how to eat, and how to interact with other shorebirds.
While feeding with their dad, the young watch him probe for food by inserting his bill vertically in the mud and rhythmically poking it up and down like a sewing machine needle at work. In this way, dowitchers search for buried invertebrates like marine worms, small clams, shrimp, and isopods and amphipods of various kinds. Flocks feed together with little or no aggression toward flockmates or other shorebirds.
When they detect prey beneath the mud, they consume it immediately, except for larger worms, which they pull from the burrow and consume above the water. They will also feed on a great variety of insect life, especially larvae, beetles, flies, mosquitoes, and midges, as well as on spiders and snails which they glean from plants or pick from the water’s surface. Plant matter such as tubers and seeds forms a minor part of their diet.
After fattening up on these foods for another month or so, the young are ready to start moving south in large flocks with adult birds. Unlike the Long-billed dowitcher, Short-bills migrate in stages (called “molt migration”), first moving to intermediate areas to complete their molt, then moving through Canada and the Lower 48 to their wintering grounds as far south as coastal South America.
Back to names, I mentioned the origin of their common English name in the article on the Long-billed dowitcher. The scientific name of the Short-billed dowitcher, Limnodromus griseus, is a Greek-Latin combination meaning, “gray marsh racer.”
For the meanings of its Yup’ik names, refer to my description of the Long-billed dowitcher. If anyone knows its name in the Lower Kuskokwim Delta villages, please let me know.
Conservation threats to Short-billed dowitchers include hunting on their wintering grounds, stopover and winter habitat loss to rampant development and urban sprawl. Sea level rise and consequent changes to their breeding habitat from Climate Change will be an even more serious challenge to the species for their future survival. They have already lost up to 70 percent of their original numbers since 1970!