A very tame rarity, long-billed dowitcher at Poole Park, it's bendy bill and short-billed dowitcher Lodmoor, Dorset

October 20, 2014 | Categories:

Long-billed dowitcher at Poole Park 31st January 2011 and 14th February 2011

Long-billed dowitcher, 1st winter, portrait, Dorset

The tamest rarity I have photographed was a long-billed dowitcher in Poole Park in 2011. The park in winter has good numbers of wildfowl and waders, all around it's boating lake. This is despite it being very busy. People walk past the edge of the water all day, yet the dowitcher was comfortable feeding meters from the edge.

Long-billed dowitchers are migrants in the Americas and some go off-course each year to the UK. Before and after the dates, a long-billed dowitcher was at Lodmoor RSPB. It may have been the same bird. It could return to America after building up strength feeding, I hope this one did. 

Long-billed dowitcher, 1st winter, probing mud, Dorset

Birds with bills that can bend

The next two images show an evolutionary adaptation in the long-billed dowitchers bill. Most birds only open and shut their bill at the gape, the rest of the beak is ridged.

Long-billed dowitchers and some other birds with long straight bills (e.g. snipe and woodcock) can pull the tip of the upper-mandible upwards using muscles at the base

This adaptation is useful for feeding, first the closed bill can probe into the ground until touch sensitive nerves at the tip can feel it's food. Just the tip of the bill is opened to grasp it. Then the bill is pulled out, opened at the gape and it's food manipulated towards the base to swallow it.

Feeding this way is precise, efficient and it helps prevent large amounts of mud to being swallowed along with it's food.

Long-billed dowitcher, 1st winter, preening, Dorset

(Above: Flexing the bill tip during preening)

(Below: The bill tip open during feeding)

Long-billed dowitcher, 1st winter, feeding, Dorset  

Comparison to short-billed dowitcher, Lodmoor RSPB, 11 September 2012

The short-billed dowitcher was so far away that I could not get a photo that allows a good comparison of these two similar species.

Both were juveniles, but the short-billed dowitcher is a much newer juvenile, in redder plumage of September. The long billed dowitcher was photographed in February (it's first winter), both would have been greyer at that time.

Through a telescope, differencess were visible. But even on my distant image the head shape is different. The eye is placed higher above the bill, so that the angle of the line through the eye is steeper than on long-billed dowitcher.

Juvenile short-billed dowitcher, Hampshire 

See the full set of long-billed dowicher images here. This includes larger sizes, just select an image then click directly on the image once in the image page.

See the short-billeddowitcher image in the gallery here.