The Tao of ’Witching

PROMO Intro Dowitchers 512x219

Threading to-and-fro across our mudflats and salt marshes is a medium-sized shorebird with a disproportionately long bill, probing the substrate for worms, shrimp and other aquatic invertebrates. The name “dowitcher” derives from a 19th-century Iroquoian term for these birds, and unfortunately its original meaning appears lost to history. Possibly it had something to do with the absurd beak, spanning at least twice the length of the bird’s skull.

Wading into the shallows, the dowitcher carries its ruler-straight bill like a dowsing rod, stopping at intervals to plumb the murk with a rapid series of head-dips that birders often characterize as the “sewing-machine method” of feeding. To divine its burrowed provender, the dowitcher, like many sandpipers, relies on the sensitive touch of its bill. Rather remarkably, the distal end of this bill is prehensile, allowing dowitchers to manipulate the tips of their mandibles while buried in mud.

Dowitchers breed in the muskegs of arctic and subarctic North America, wintering as far south as the coasts of Brazil and Peru. Up until the 1950s only one species was recognized, the Long-billed Dowitcher; it’s since been split to differentiate the (comparatively) Short-billed Dowitcher. But both species (and all three subspecies of Short-billed Dowitcher) indeed look very similar, especially during migration, when birds of varying ages in varying stages of molt tarry together. Short-billed ’witchers are said to prefer saltwater shoreline habitat over freshwater while migrating, but this is by no means a hard-and-fast rule.