The Birder Jargon Project: Shorebirds, shore-tened
You must forgive me for my recent obsession. It is August after all, the time when nearly every birder’s mind, grown stale and cobweb-ridden during the summer doldrums, is so keyed up for the prospect of new birds that you’ll latch like an Alien facehugger to the first thing with wings that shows up in your area. For almost all of us, this means shorebirds. And it helps that shorebirds are profoundly interesting anyway. Sure, they’re both terribly opaque and overwhelming to the beginning birder, but with a little bit of experience an entire Whitman’s Sampler of opportunity appears. Calidrids may be the raspberry cream that no one takes until the end, but even a new birder can appreciate the nougatty Avocets and the Spotted Sandpipers and Yellowlegs. And eventually you’ll learn to appreciate and love peeps, baffling little bastards though they are occasionally, even though you’ll never love the raspberry creams. Seriously though, those are better off in the garbage. Why do they even make them?
As with all things to which for which one can have an affection, shorebirders are apt to throw around species names that even the most careful study of your field guide will not prepare you for. I’m especially guilty of this, a product of my appreciation for wordplay and my desire to get my sightings out to my field companions – when I have them – as quickly as possible. So I freely admit that this edition of the BJP contains a few that may be widely used, and some that may just be me. I’ve lost the ability to tell the difference.
Shorebirds are typically sorted into groups based on where you can find them. And while there are certainly exceptions every time you go out in the field, these generalized terms can often offer clues as to their identification as different species definitely do prefer different niches. “Mudpipers” are those usually found on a mudflat, these including most Calidrids. “Rockpipers” and “Beachpipers” are those that prefer the shore, and their turf preferences are fairly obvious. “Marshpipers” wade in deeper water, especially that which offers aquatic plants, and “Grasspipers“, like Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, mostly eschew mud for wet meadows and sod farms. Within these groups there are several birds that overlap, but nearly every species of sandpiper in North American can be shoe-horned more or less effectively into these categories.
I’ll break this rather large family into two posts, covering the “Mudpipers”, a large assemblage that includes the “Peeps”, a jargony group of birds if there ever was one, next week, but for now, “Marshpipers” mostly consists of the genus Tringa, containing the popular Yellowlegs, both Greater and Lesser, as well as the often ill-named Solitary Sandpiper and several representatives in Europe and Asia with “shanks” of various colors that rarely show up in North America. Shank is an old english word referring to the birds’ legs, and as such it’s pretty easy to figure out the dominant characteristic in Redshanks and Greenshanks, for instance. But as those birds are exceptionally rare on the continent, they’re not worth worrying about. No North American birder is going to use slang to describe a Code 4 rarity. That’s a sighting you want to enunciate.
Yellowlegs, however, are subject to shortening. Birders will often unceremoniously drop the primary characteristic of both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs in an effort to save time and potential tongue twisting. Greater Yellowlegs often becomes just “Greaterlegs“, whereas the Lesser changes to “Lesserlegs“. Solitary Sandpiper, which just as often isn’t solitary, neither can neither hide from the brevity brigade, becoming – at least in my birding vocabulary – “Sollie” or “Sollie Sand“. The better to spit it out. Additionally, not a Tringa, but often equally marshy, is the Spotted Sandpiper, whose endearing bobbing backside seem practically made for “Spotty“, a name perhaps better suited for a pet dog than a bird.
The precious suffix –ie is all too common among jargony nicknames for any hobby or avocation. It’s a bit too excessively cute for some, but birders employ it regularly. Both of the well-established “grasspipers” are not immune to its twee siren song, as both Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper become “Uppie” and “Buffie” respectively. Uppie sounds a bit too close to what my toddler son says when he wants to be picked up, so I’m not sure about it. And Buffie poses context problem given the birders’ tendency to apply a similar name to any bird species with Buff in the name. But that’s an issue I’ll address in the future. For now, head to the mudflats confident in your ability to hang with the jargony birders. You will not be confused.
At least until you actually get to the Sandpipers.