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I can hear the collective sigh coming from cyberspace-last month a jaeger, this month a shorebird. But relax, there are shorebirds that are downright easy to identify (think American Avocet) and there are very few individuals that can't be identified with the correct approach and good views.
Experienced observers often rely extensively on shape, but this can be challenging for birders who haven't had time to study many species. Perhaps the most important thing to look at when identifying a shorebird is the bill, but sometimes (like here) you can't see that.
At this point, let's consider the date-late August. At this time in the northern hemisphere we can expect to see both adult and juvenile shorebirds. Adults can be in alternate or basic plumage and many are molting from alternate plumage into basic plumage. All of this adds up to a myriad of plumages shown by any single species, and is one of the major reasons why identification of fall shorebirds poses such challenges.
Yet differences between adults and juveniles also offer excellent clues, and aging shorebirds is a critical step in correctly identifying many of the most challenging species. Our bird has very crisp buff edges to the mantle and paler white edging to the scapulars. Almost all the feathers have nice crisp edges to them. This is typical of juvenile shorebirds. Adult shorebirds in August often show at least a few retained worn feathers from alternate plumage. And adults that are completely in basic plumage would still not be as scaly as our bird.
One other feature stands out in this photo-the bird's yellow legs. While leg color can be deceptive in the field, there is no mistaking that our bird has bright yellow legs. Add to this the uniformly buff underparts that seem to become a bit paler near the belly and we are left with Pectoral Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Ruff.
Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers all have rufous edging to the wing coverts in juvenile plumage and can be quickly eliminated. Ruff looks rather similar to our bird, but that species has scaly buff on the wing coverts and mantle, not white scaling as is present on our bird.
This leaves us with Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Looking more closely, we see that the sides of the breast are spotted, the face is quite plain with a darker crown and dark eye all characteristics of Buff-breasted Sandpipers.
Many quiz-takers were probably able to correctly identify this bird without aging it, but aging shorebirds in the fall is a good habit to get into and can add greatly to one's enjoyment of fall shorebirding.
This juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper was photographed at Jumbo Reservoir in northeastern Colorado in late August by Bill Schmoker, where the species is rare but regular. More of Bill's photos can be seen at www.schmoker.org.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the October Bird Photo Quiz—Buff-breasted Sandpiper:
The graph below shows that the highest number of answers submitted was for Buff-breasted Sandpiper (66), followed by Ruff (10). We received a number of answers that did not conform to the ABA Checklist format. Please note that answers must consist simply of the Common or English name exactly as it appears in the ABA Checklist.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.