Identify our shorebirds

Shorebird Identification Guide (photographs and descriptions)

  1. Identify our shorebirds  
  2. Discover where they live
  3. Understand their needs
  4. Help them to survive
  5. Back to Pumicestone Passage shorebirds

Main points

There are five main points to consider when identifying shorebirds:

  • Size and shape
    Check the overall size and shape, and compare with any birds nearby
  • Colour
    Check the overall colour, upperparts and underparts, plus any noticeable features
  • Bill
    Check the length, shape and colour, and if it is two-toned
  • Legs
    Check the length and colour. Beware of partly concealed or muddy legs
  • Behaviour
    Note what the bird is doing, how it is feeding, and the habitat it is in

Visible differences

Although most migratory shorebirds seen in Pumicestone Passage are generally in non-breeding plumage, and the differences between them are often subtle, each species is unique and most are readily identifiable. The Identification Guide will help you to identify them, and the more shorebirds you find and identify, the easier it becomes.

There may be visible differences between the sexes in particular species. For instance, a female may have a longer bill or may be duller, or there may be a size difference. There may also be a significant difference between breeding and non-breeding plumage, and young birds may show yet another plumage variation.

Large and colourful shorebirds, such as stilts and oystercatchers, are easy to identify, especially if you visit those sites marked on the map where you can get really close to them.

But to identify smaller or less colourful species, and to enjoy them fully, binoculars are invaluable. A telescope is extremely useful for identifying shorebirds feeding or roosting on distant mudflats or sandbanks.

Bar-tailed Godwits
Bar-tailed Godwits
Image: R Inglis

Tips for viewing

Keep your distance, especially if viewing from an exposed vantage point. Most shorebirds are easily disturbed and if you get too close you can easily flush them.

If there is a hide to view from, such as at Kakadu Beach (see map), this will allow you to approach shorebirds closely, as well as providing you with some protection from the elements. Adapt your behaviour suitably when watching shorebirds, otherwise they may not stay long enough for you to identify them.

Keep as quiet and as still as possible, and be careful to avoid any sudden movements. Wearing dull clothing is always advantageous.

Field guide

Purchase a field guide. There are several excellent field guides to Australian birds, available at most bookshops, that describe all shorebirds likely to be seen and there are also specialist books dealing exclusively with shorebirds.

Remember that at first you will not identify every shorebird you see, and that puzzling little fellow is much more likely to be a common species than a major rarity.

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