Keys to Identifying Shorebirds

Shorebirds feeding patterns

You may not think of bird migration in July and August, but this is the peak of southward shorebird migration, when any mudflat is likely to provide a resting place for few species, and the best places can host 20 or more species together. Shorebirds (sandpipers and plovers) provide some of the most interesting birding opportunities in late summer, but they are widely known to be among the most difficult birds to identify. Many similar species are often in mixed herds.

As with any other large group of similar species, shorebirds can be subdivided into smaller groups of related species based on common characteristics. Once you have found a flock of shorebirds, one of the best first steps is to determine which of the subgroups are represented. Pay particular attention to overall size and proportions, habitat selection, and foraging movements. Don’t worry too much about plumage details at this stage.

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Four distinct groups encompass the majority of all shorebirds you are likely to encounter:

plovers are small to medium sized with short, stout bills. These species feed visually and move through the flats in short bursts, running a few paces, diving to grab something in the mud, then standing still to watch for their next target. Plovers almost never wade through water and are often found in the drier parts of the plains or even in dry fields. The Killdeer is the most widespread and familiar species.


knights are medium to large in size, elegant, with a relatively long beak and legs. These birds are mainly sight feeders, walking steadily and bending down to deftly pick up food from the surface of the mud or from the water. They do not probe through mud and are usually found wading through water.

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Dowitchers are medium-sized, stocky with very long beaks and relatively short legs. Dowitchers feed entirely by touch and taste, probing repeatedly to find prey buried in the mud. Their bills move like the needle of a sewing machine. They often wade through water (sometimes walking on wet mud) with their heads down for long periods of time.

Peeps are small to medium sized with relatively short legs and short, slender beaks. This group includes the most numerous species (small, semipalmated, and western sandpipers), and birds can be found in groups of hundreds. They feed primarily by touch and taste, walking with short, quick steps and keeping their heads down when scooping food from the surface or quickly probing through mud.


Other variations occur, of course. But these four groups include all of the most common shorebirds in most places, and they are a useful first step in simplifying their identification.

A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of BirdWatching.