Dowitchers, Stitchers of the Shore
by: Virginia Andrews
Their style is peaceful as they feed, step by step, along the edges of exposed sandbars or mudflats. Their plumage is demure, predominantly brown and off- white. They are most easily identified by their pump shape and horizontal attitude.
They are the ones that seem to stitch the edges of land and water, plunging their bills up and down as they walk. Individ- ual birds only spend a short time on our shores, pausing to re- fuel as they head south. Small groups, forming lines at the water’s edge, their long bills jabbing, they are like tiny sewing machines delineating the rise and fall of the tide.
If they have very long bills, a thoughtful person might ask, then why are they called Short-billed Dowitchers? The answer is that there is a closely-related, but completely-separate species with an even longer bill, a “how does he not trip over that thing?” bill. Those are called, reasonably enough, Long-billed Dowitchers. But for many years, the two were confused. Even the origin of the name Dowitcher is obscure. Unscien- tifically, they were called by a variety of names: Red-breasted Snipe, Brown-back, Robin Snipe, Kelp Plover, German Snipe and Deutscher. The latter were common usage among hunters on Long Island. Some suggest the name Dowitcher evolved from that.
Others suggest that it was derived from their call. Given hunters’ exposure to loud noises, interpretations of similar sounds might well become somewhat flexible. Or perhaps it took off like the term “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which referred to people who were not, in fact, from Holland. No one, other than punning birders years later, seemed to think of hunting “Dowagers.”
Despite the interest in birds by generations of hunters, ornithologists and other observers of the natural world, lack of information about Dowitchers persisted for an unusually long time.
It was not due to lack of specimens. Even beyond the infamous plume trade, the late 19th century saw a confluence of improved firepower, communication, railroad trans- portation and disposable income. All com- bined to enable the rising population of the United States to voraciously devour the birdlife of the continent.
Market gunners devastated entire species. The Passenger Pigeon, once possibly the most abundant bird on Earth, was hunted to extinction in little more than a decade. The
Eskimo Curlew, popularly known as the Dough Bird, was so arduously pursued that even after protection, it never really re- covered. A small number struggled along, apparently making a final exit sometime in the 1960s.
Dowitchers were one of the most numerous and most hunted species for a while. But somehow, despite their popu- larity on a slice of toast, they began a rebound after the Migra- tory Bird Treaty of 1918, lasting until the mid 20th century.
Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers were originally thought to be one species. As there is some overlap in size and bill length, and there are plumage variations in both, it was understandable. No one knew where they bred. No one had ever found a nest, or young. Many basic facts about their life history were completely unknown. Of all the shorebirds, Dowitcher nests proved to be the hardest to find.
The first clue came in 1906, when a nest and eggs were found in northern Alberta, Canada. But because Long-billed Dowitchers were thought to be the western race, the discovery’s significance was not appreciated. That they were actually different species was not even theorized until 1932, and couldn’t be con- firmed until 1950. Twentieth-century descriptions of their habits included a lot of “probably” statements, easily extrapolated from other shorebirds but unsupported by actual data. That didn’t start to come in until the 1970s.
One reason is undoubtedly that their choice of sub-Arctic swamp and bog habitat made them a less-appealing study subject. Uneven tussocks of sedge three or four feet high, interspersed by slimy pools of rotting vegetation, make for diffi- cult walking. Small hummocks of dwarf birch and willow, and black spruce poking up like a ragged forest of abandoned chimney-sweeping brushes, are not much better. Depths of soupy muck held together only by melting permafrost or clay can swal- low an unwary moose, let alone a ve- hicle.
Additionally, uncountable swarms of black flies and mosquitoes make Dowitchers’ preferred nurseries an unusually unpleasant place for humans to work. But for a bird arriving, as ponds begin to thaw and the insect life of the taiga and tundra begins to explode, it is probably like waking up in the center of one enormous, delicious buffet.
Insects are one of the most high-quality foods for all sorts of birds. In order to fly long distances – in some cases over 2,500 miles without stopping – migratory birds put on layers of fat. Fat is their fuel for the vigorous marathon that gets them, season to season, from place to place. Gorging on fly larvae, worms and beetles, they double their body weight. But hazards during a long flight can use up all they can store and more. Faced with bad weather or a loss of habitat on the long journey, they can also lose muscle mass. It’s not easy being a bird.
We now know that Short-billed Dowitchers have three separate subspecies. They are considered a medium-length migrant. As the sun declines in the Arctic, fall starts in July. Leaving in three distinct waves, they go from their breeding ground in the Canadian interior toward both coasts of North America, apparently making long direct flights be- tween stop-over points. In the east they stage in the Gulf of St. Lawrence before moving down the coast.
Although both sexes incubate the eggs, females depart first, as soon as the young hatch. The downy young can leave the nest, feed themselves and even swim immediately. But the males stay nearby to brood or protect them as they grow. Adult males leave next, arriving on our shores in late July. The immatures, the birds of the year, follow last, alone.
Starting in August, we see the real flood of Short- billed Dowitchers here. Nantucket is an important pit-stop on the way from the sub-Arctic to Florida, the West Indies or South American coasts as far away as Brazil. They feed in salt water, preferring the quiet waters of bays or estuaries, avoiding rougher ocean beaches. The Creeks, Coatue, Eel Point and the flats on the harbor side of Esther’s Is- land all provide the necessary boost of food and shelter.
Their diet on migration includes polychaete worms, amphipods and some mollusks, as well as flies and spiders that gather on the exposed algae at low tide. Short-billed Dowitchers can make their long migratory hops by night or day. Their move- ments are more clocked by the tides than the time of day.
But as Shakespeare reminds us, there are also tides in the affairs of men. Laws that long protected migratory birds are now under attack. With in- creasing hazards and habitat-loss, Dowitchers have already declined 46 percent over the last 50 years. Watch them now, and wonder, will we choose to keep them stitching our shores together for another generation? ///
Ginger Andrews is a native Nantucketer, artist and birder and leads bird walks for the Maria Mitchell Association. She writes the weekly “Island Bird Sightings” column for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.