With widely separated breeding and wintering areas, the Long-billed Dowitcher migrates across much of western North America. Adult Long-billed Dowitchers leave the breeding grounds a month or two ahead of juveniles. Migration sometimes takes place at night, and dowitchers usually migrate in single-species flocks.
Predation by raptors such as Peregrine Falcons and Short-eared Owls is a major source of mortality in dowitchers. Despite this, the Long-billed Dowitcher population appears to be stable or increasing. It is not known how long an individual can live in the wild.
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Description of the Long-billed Dowitcher
The Long-billed Dowitcher is a chunky shorebird with a long, straight bill, cinnamon underparts, and a white stripe above the eye. White scapular tips. Length: 12 in. Wingspan: 19 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Scapular tips not white in the winter, and breast more heavily spotted with black.
Juveniles have a dull gray breast lacking black spots.
Forages by wading and probing mud with its bill.
Breeds in arctic Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winters along the west coast of the U.S., in the southern U.S., and along the southern Atlantic Coast.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Long-billed Dowitcher.
From the limited information available, Long-billed Dowitchers don’t seem to return to the same breeding or wintering areas in subsequent years.
Although territorial at their nest, Long-billed Dowitchers will forage with neighboring pairs.
The call is a sharp “keek”.
- Short-billed Dowitchers are very similar and are best distinguished by voice.
The nest is a depression lined with plant materials.
Color: Olive with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 20-22 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the male for some time.
Bent Life History of the Long-billed Dowitcher
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Long-billed Dowitcher – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
LIMNODROMUS GRISEUS SCOLOPACEUS (Say)
This is supposed to be a western form of the species, characterized by an average larger size, a decidedly longer bill, and more uniformly rufous under parts in the adult spring plumage. It was first described and long regarded as a distinct species. but later developments have shown intergradation and it has been reduced to subspecific rank. The above characters seem to hold good in all specimens collected on their breeding grounds in Alaska and northwestern Mackenzie; and these characters are distinctive and well marked.
But in immature and winter plumages the form can be recognized only by size; and, as the measurements of the two forms overlap and intergrade, only the extremes can be positively named. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the migration and winter ranges of the two forms overlap. This form, scolopaceus, is by no means rare on the Atlantic coast, and griseus occurs regularly on the Pacific coast; intermediates are most abundant in the central valleys, but occur on both coasts.
Spring: The long-billed dowitcher is a rather early spring migrant; the migration starts in March; the main flight through the United States is in April; and it reaches its northern breeding grounds in May. Dr. E. ~V. Nelson (1887) says of its arrival in northern Alaska:
In spring, the middle of May, as the snow disappears, and the first pale leaves of grass begin to thrust their spear-points through the dead vegetable mat on the ground, or as early as the 10th on some seasons, this peculiar snipe returns to its summer home. At the Yukon mouth I found them on May 12. when they were already engaged in love-making, though the ground was still, to a great extent, covered with snow, and only here and there appeared a thawed place where they could feed. Toward the end of this month they are plentiful, and their curious habits and loud notes make them among the most conspicuous denizens of the marshes.
Courtship: Doctor Nelson (1887) writes:
These are very demonstrative birds in their love-making, and the last of May and first of June their loud cries are heard everywhere about their haunts, especially in morning and evening. Two or three males start in pursuit of a female and away they go twisting and tuning, here and there, over marsh and stream, with marvelous swiftness and dexterity. At short intervals a male checks his flight for a moment to utter a strident poet a iceet; wee-too, wee-too; then on he goes full tilt again. After they have mated, or when a solitary male pays his devotions, they rise 15 or 20 yards from the ground, where, hovering upon quivering wings, the bird pours forth a lisping hut energetic and frequently musical song, which can he very imperfectly expressed by the syllables peet-peet; pee-ter-wee-too; wee-too; pee-ter-wee-too; pce-ter-wee-too; wee-too; wee-too. This is the complete song but frequently only fragments are sung, as when the bird is in pursuit of the female.
Herbert W. Brandt says in his notes:
The male longbilled dowitcher pours forth his wild musical song as he hovers in the air with raised vibrating wings, perhaps 50 feet above the object of his rapturous outburst. The female, from her retreat on the cozy border of a lowland pool, modestly watches the ardent lover as he renders his melodious homage. In common with many others of the shore dwellers, the most conspicuous courting action is the pursuit race by a number of males for their desired, hut elusive, lady love. It is then that one marvels at the speed and agility displayed by apparently awkward birds, as they twist and dodge in their aerial wooing. Even during his swift flight the suitor tries, hut with poor success, to continue his musical efforts for the benefit of his larger paramour.
Nesting: MacFarlane’s notes record brief descriptions of some half a dozen nests found in the Anderson River region and on the borders of the wooded country. These were all located on marshy ground near a swamp or small lake. One is described as “a mere depression in the midst of a tuft or decayed grass, lined with a few withered leaves.” A set collected for me by F. S. Hersey, near St. Michael, Alaska, June 9, 1914, was taken from a hollow in the moss betwecen two clumps of grass on the tundra; the female was flushed and shot. Mr. Brandt says in his notes:
The nest of the long-billed dowitcher Is a mere depression scratched out on a small eminence on a wet moss-covered meadow through which short sedges grow sparingly to a height of about six inches. The nest, the bottom of which was usunily wet, was in every case surrounded by shallow fresh water and the basinlike cavity was meagerly lined with grass and small leaves. In two nests the eggs rested on the cold wet moss foundation still frozen a few inches underneath and the scanty nesting material was all deposited on the rim of the nest. In every instance the female was conducting the Incubation, but the male was in close attendance. The bird Is a very close sitter and most be almost trodden upon before It will rise, wings spread, from Its duties.
Eggs: Four eggs seems to be the invariable rule for the longbilled dowitcher. In shape they vary from ovate pyriform to subpyriform; some are quite rounded and others are decidedly pointed. They have only a slight gloss. Mr. Brandt in his notes describes his four sets, as follows:
The ground color has considerable variatIon and shows two distinct types: The commoner one, the brown type, of which we found three sets Is “Saccardo’s olive”; and the other type, represented by a single set, Is “greenish,” shading to “bluish ginucous.” The markings are bold, slightly elongated and seldom confluent, so that blotched markings are unusual. The eggs are medium to heavily spotted, causing the ground color to be conspicuous, and, in consequence, the underlying markings are very noticeable. The primary spots are in various shades of brown, namely: “Vandyke brown,” “seal brown,” and “Saccardo’s umber,” which make the egg one of unusual beauty. The underlying spots are “drab gray” to “light grayish olive” and are larger and more numerous than are found on the other limicoline eggs we collected at Hooper Bay.
In my set. the ground colors vary from “dark olive buff” to “olive ouff.” Two of the eggs are irregularly spotted and blotched with spots of various sizes; one is quite evenly marked with small elongated spots; and another is sparingly spotted and blotched, chiefly about. the larger end. The colors of the markings are “Saccardo’s umber,” “bister” and “warm sepia,” with underlying markings of “deep” to “pale brownish drab.” In other collections I have seen a number of sets that matched almost exactly certain types of heavily blotched eggs of the Wilson snipe; these may be within the normal range of dowitcher’s eggs; but I have always been suspicious that some of them were wrongly identified.The measurements of 79 eggs average 41.8 by 28.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measures 45.5 by 30.5, 44 by 32, 37.5 by 29.2 and 39.4 by 26.3 millimeters.
Young: 11. B. Gonover has sent me the following interesting notes:
Newly hatched young were found June 22nd. The incubation period seems to be about 20 days. A nest found by Murie on May 31 with two eggs, had tour eggs on June 2, and on being visited the evening of June 22, was found to contain two young and two pipped eggs. The colors of the soft parts of a downy young several days old were as follows: Tarsus olive with blackish stripes down the sides, hill black, iris brown. In the newly hatched youug the tarsus is much lighter. On June 23 while visiting the nest of a blackbellied plover, I came across a pair of dowitchers that from their actions appeared to have young. Not wishing to stop at the time, I passed on, but on returning several hours later, found them again in a marsh at the foot of a long, low hill. When I sat down to watch, one bird wheeled about me calling, and then flew off down the valley. The other bird at first I could not locate, but soon saw It flying about the hillside chirping. I noticed that as this bird passed over a certain spot, it would hover about 15 feet above the ground, giving a whistling trill. After a few minutes It dawned on me, that each time it hovered to give this call, it was a little farther up the hillside. When I moved up toward the top of the hill, the bird alighted close by, scolded for a while and then commenced the same performance as before. In this way in about half an hour the dowitcher and I had crossed the hill from one marsh to another, a distance of about 600 yards. During all this time its mate had appeared only twice, when it flew by calling and then disappeared again. Finally the bird I was following alighted in the marsh at the far side of the hill from where we had started, and began running short distances, stopping arid then running on again. Watching through some field glasses, I soon saw a young one following at its heels. Rushing down suddenly, three downies were found hiding with their heads stuck into holes or depressions in the moss. They appeared to be several days old. Evidently the old dowitcher had led these young ones across the hill by simply hovering over or in front of them and calling. The bird was collected and proved to be a male. Just what the relation of the male and female to the eggs and young is in this species it is hard to say. From the experience above I believe the male does nine-tenths of the work in caring for the, chicks. I think this will probably prove true as to the incubation of the eggs as well, but that the female takes some share in the hatching seems probable, as one collected In the vicinity of a nest showed incubation patches.
Plumages: The downy young dowitcher somewhat resembles the young snipe, but has a somexvhat different pattern of similar colors. The large central crown patch is black, clouded, or overcast, with “chestnut” tips and with two indefinite spots of whitish tips; the black extends down to the bill; a broad, black lord stripe extends from the eye to the bill, and a still broader postoctilar stripe from the eye to the nape; these two stripes are separated from the dark crown patch by a stripe which is “tawny” above the lores, huffy white over the eyes, and white around the posterior half of the crown. The chin is buffy white, and the throat and breast are “ochraceous tawny,” becoming lighter and grayer on the belly. The upper parts are much like those of the snipe, variegated, or marbled, with black, “chestnut,” and “umber brown,” and spotted with small round white spots, terminal tufts, which are very thick on the wings and form roughly two rows down the back and two rows on each thigh.
In fresh juvenal plumage in July in Alaska, the crown, back, and scapulars are black, broadly edged with “cinnamon rufous” or “hazel”; the throat, breast, and flanks are gray, the feathers broadly tipped with “ochraceous tawny” and streaked with black or spotted with dusky; the tertials, innermost greater coverts, and the median coverts are edged with “cinnamon buff.” These edgings are much browner in 8calopaceus and paler buff in griseus.
A postjuvenal molt, beginning in September and lasting until December or later, involves a change of the body plumage, sometimes the tail and some of the wing coverts and scapulars. This produces the first winter plumage, which is like the adult winter plumage, except for the retained juvenal scapulars, tertials, and wing coverts. The first prenuptial molt is limited to a few scattering feathers in the body plumage, above and below, some of the scapulars and wing coverts, and the tail; these are like corresponding spring feathers of the adult. There is considerable individual variation in the amount of new feathers in this first nuptial plumage. I have seen birds in this plumage from March 28 to September 9. They do not go north to breed, but remain in the South during the summer. At the first postnuptial molt, in August, they assume the adult winter plumage. In some young birds the prenuptial molt seems to be omitted and the postnuptial molt seems to be a change from one winter plumage to another.
Adults have a partial prenuptial molt from February to May, involving all the body plumage, most of the scapulars, some of the tertials, the central pair of rectrices and the wing coverts. I have seen adults in full nuptial plumage as early as March 4 and as late as August 21. July and August birds are very black above, due to the wearing away of the buff edgings. There is much individual variation in the extent and intensity of the rufous and in the amount of black spotting on the breast. The complete postnuptial molt of adults begins in August and is often finished in September. I have seen several birds in which the primaries were being completely renewcd during both months.
Food: Preble and McAtce (1923) give the following report on the contents of two stomachs of long-billed dowitchers:
Two stomachs, of the two specimens last mentioned from St. Paul Island, have been examined and their contents were almost exclusively the larvae of midges (Chironomidae), of which there were more than 75 In one gizzard and more than 100 in the other. Vegetable debris, amounting to 3 per cent by bulk of the stomach contents, also was present, and It probably was picked up Incidentally with the midge larvae. Included in the vegetable matter were seeds of bottle brush (Eippuris vu1~a~-is), sedge (Carex sp.), and water chickweed (Mos~tia foatona).
Behavior: I have never been able to discover any differences in behavior between the two forms of the dowitcher; their habits are doubtless similar. Some gunners think that they can distinguish the two forms by their notes, but the differences in notes are probably due to individual variations in a somewhat varied vocabulary. John T. Nichols (1920) one of the closest students and best authorities on shore birds’ notes, says “the chances are there is no significant difference in the calls of the two races.”
Fall: S. F. Ratlibun has sent me the following notes on the habits of this bird on its migrations through the State of Washington:
The long-billed dowitcher will be found in the company of almost any of the shore birds, in flocks of varying numbers, and even as single individuals, hut appears to show somewhat of a partiality for the company of the blackbellied plover and the red-backed sandpiper. On this coast both its spring and autumnal migrations seem to be somewhat prolonged, for in the case of the former we have records from April 11 until late in May; and for the latter from early August until into November. It will be found alike on the sandy beaches and the muddy flats, seemingly showing no particular preference for either. When the tide Is at its ebb on the flats the birds oftimes become widely scattered and single ones may be found in unexpected places. On one occasion as we were walking across a grassy marsh the head and neck of a long-billed dowitcher was seen exposed above the growth along the edge of one of the little channels running through the marsh. As we approached the bird It could be seen making attempts to rise, but this it was unable to do on accomit of being Impeded by the length of the grass, and we drove the bird ahead until an open spot was reached when it then took wing, at this time being but a few feet away.
On various occasions while we were watching flocks of the small sandpipers about some bit of water, dowlichers would fly nast and, being attracted by the calls of other birds, they then after circling for a moment or two would alight at the pool to feed. When thus engaged they give the Impression of being somewhat deliberate In their actions and as they moved about some would frequently wade up to their breasts Into the shallow water, often so remaining until by some action they seemed to lose a footing and when this occurred a retreat would be made into a more shallow part. Oftentimes one or more birds would suddenly cease feeding and assume a posture of repose and when this took place it was a common occurrence to see some standing on but one leg, thus to remain motionless for a time.
Dowitchers do not appear to he very shy when found in the flocks of the smaller sandpipers, hut are the first birds to retreat as one approaches the flock; and on such occasions It Is generally the case that one or more of them will suddenly take wing and put the entire flock in motion. They are swiftflying birds and when on the wing have a somewhat harsh note that is given from time to time. In their spring dress they are attractive, as at this time their under parts are a rich huff color, and a flock of dowitchers seen at this season with the Ught striking full on their breasts Is indeed a handsome sight.
Winter: Dowitchers occur in winter as far south as Ecuador and Peru. Dr. Frank M. Chapman (1926) referred the birds collected in Ecuador to .wolopacews. Nonbreeding birds, or immatures, remain there all summer, as they do in other parts of their winter range. I have taken both forms of dowitchers in Florida, where they winter regularly in small numbers.
Range: North America, Central America, Cuba, and northwestern South America. Casual in Japan.
Breeding range: North to probably eastern Siberia (Cape Wankarem); Alaska (Kuparuk River and Point Barrow); probably Yukon (Herschel Island) ; and Mackenzie (Franklin Bay). East to Mackenzie (Franklin Bay). South to Mackenzie (Fort Anderson); Yukon (Lapierre House) ; and Alaska (Point Dall). West to Alaska (Point Dali, Pastolik, St. Michael, and Kowak River); and probably eastern Siberia (Cape Wankarem).
Winter range: North to California (Los Banos and Santa Ana); Texas (Corpus Christi) ; Louisiana (State Game Preserve) ; Florida (East Goose Creek, Kissimmee, and Cape Canaveral); and probably Cuba (Santiago de Vegas and San Fernando). East to probably Cuba (Santiago de Vegas); Costa Rica (Alajuela); and probably Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. South to Ecuador. West to Guatemala; Tehuantepec (San Mateo); JaLsco (La Barca); Lower California (La Paz, San Jose Mission and San Quentin); and California (San Diego and Los Banos).
Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: South Carolina, near Charleston, April 30; New York, Long Island, March 20; Illinois, Cary’s Station, April 24, and Chicago, April 28; Minnesota, Heron Lake, May 1; Kansas, Manhattan, April 21, and Wichita, April 28; Nebraska, Callaway, April 8, and Omaha, April 28; Iowa, Wall Lake, May 9; South Dakota, Brown County, April 14, and Harrison, April 15; North Dakota, Menoken, May 7; Manitoba, Shoal Lake, April 24, Pilot Mound, May 1, and Margaret, May 18; Colorado, Loveland, April 6, Denver, April 26, and Durango, April 30; Wyoming, Cheyenne, May 2, and Lake Como, May 5; central and northern California, Alameda, March 15, Palo Alto, April 17, Ballona, April 19, and Stockton, April 20; Oregon, Malbeur Lake, April 20; Washington, Menlo, May 1, and Fort Steilacoom, May 5; British Columbia, Courtenay, April 28, and Chilliwack, ~1ay 8; and Alaska, Craig, May 2, Kuiu Island, May 3, Fort Kenai, May 4, and St. Michael, May 20.
Late dates of spring departure are: Louisiana, New Orleans, March 20; Texas, Corpus Christi, April 20; Chihuahua, Lake Palomas, April 9; Lower California, Gardner’s Lagoon, April 19; and southern California, Santa Barbara, May 2.
Fall migration: Early dates of fall arrival are: British Columbia, Courtenay, July 7, and Okanagan Landing, July 19; California, Balboa Bay, July 6, Santa Barbara, July 18, and Fresno, August 6; Lower California, San Quentin, August 10, and San Jose del Cabo, August 28; Tehuantepec, San Mateo, August 12; Montana, Billings, July 31; Utah, Provo River, July 24; Saskatchewan, Hay Creek, July 3; Colorado, Barr, July 5, and Denver, July 24; North Dakota, Devil’s Lake, July 20, and Mouse River, August 10; Texas, Brownsville, July 11; New York, Long Island, July 16; North Carolina, Pea and Brodie Islands, July 7; and South Carolina, near Charleston, July 20.
Late dates of fall departure are: British Columbia, Chilliwack, October 29; Washington, Seattle, October 9, and Point Chehalis, October 19; northern and central California, Easton, October 18, Alameda, October 29, and Stockton, November 5; Wyoming, Hutton’s Lakes, October 14; Colorado, Denver, October 3; Manitoba, Margaret, October 10; South Dakota, Harrison, November 2; Nebraska, Valentine, October 28; Kansas, Lawrence, October 3; Minnesota, St. Vincent, October 9; Missouri, St. Louis, October 28; New York, Long Island, November 2; and South Carolina, September 10.
Casual records: Occurrences of the long-billed dowitcher outside of its normal range must, of necessity be based upon the evidence of specimens, as it is frequently confused with the more common dowitcher of the Atlantic coast, from Maine to Florida. Seven were collected in the District of Columbia in April, 1884; one at North Haven, Connecticut, August 5, 1886; Hamilton, Ontario, August 21, 1891; Leighton, Alabama, May 15, 1891; Dauphin Island, Alabama (2), July 5, 1913; Detroit, Michigan, August 26, 1905; Yokohama, Japan, March 13; and Yezo, Japan, October 13.
Egg dates: Arctic Canada: 18 records, June 6 to July 5; 9 records, June 21 to July 3. Alaska:17 records, May 29 to July 1; 9 records, June 3 to 19.