The Long-billed Dowitcher is a chunky, medium-sized sandpiper distinguished by a sturdy bill that extends twice the length of its head and by a characteristic “sewing machine” motion while feeding. In flight, it exhibits a white triangular patch above its tail and white uppertail-covers and it emits a distinctive keek call when flying and feeding. This dowitcher breeds in tundra regions from northeastern Russia to northwestern Canada and migrates mainly west of the Mississippi River, spending the winter primarily along Pacific and Gulf Coasts into Mexico. It is distinguished by its late migrations compared to most other shorebirds and by its full wing molt during fall migration. Vernacular names for this species emphasize its snipe-like appearance and its geographic range: Western Red-breasted Snipe, Greater Gray-backed Snipe, Greater Long-beaked Snipe, Jack Snipe, Red-bellied Snipe, Western Dowitcher, and White-tailed Dowitcher.
Declining numbers of dowitchers reported in the late 1800s and early 1900s were attributed to over-hunting; this species, for example, was sold in the markets of Los Angeles in the mid-1800s as “jack snipe.” Populations are now thought to be stable, with recent breeding-range expansion in Siberia; nevertheless, the Long-billed Dowitcher has been identified as vulnerable because of loss of wetlands in western states ( Page and Gill 1994 ). In addition, specimens from Texas and California have been collected with elevated contaminant levels that may have adverse biological effects.
The breeding display of the Long-billed Dowitcher has been described as very demonstrative: flying with speed and agility, 2 or 3 males call loudly while pursuing a female. Following mating, the male hovers about 15 meters above the ground and sings a song that ends with a buzzy pee-witch-er . Surprisingly little else is known about the breeding biology of this species, however, most likely because it nests in very low densities. More is known about its migratory and wintering ecology, but few studies have been conducted where it is distinguished from the congeneric Shortbilled Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus).
The systematics of Long-billed and Short-billed dowitchers have been debated for more than a century. Early analyses by Rowan ( Rowan 1932b ) and Orr ( Orr 1940 ) inspired Rollo Beck and Frank Pitelka ( Pitelka 1986 ) to investigate these species in California. Pitelka ( Pitelka 1950b ) studied over 2,900 individuals, many collected by Beck, in his classic monograph on geographic variation and morphological differentiation, and he identified 1 race of Long-billed Dowitcher and 3 subspecies of Short-billed Dowitcher from geographically separate regions of subarctic Alaska through e. Canada. Although these 2 species were later described as a superspecies ( Mayr and Short 1970 ), they were found to have some of the most widely divergent mitochondrial DNA patterns reported in avian congeners ( Avise and Zink 1988 ). Pitelka ( Pitelka 1950b ) had suggested that genetic differences may have resulted from geographic isolation in Beringia during glacial periods when the Long-billed Dowitcher nested to the north or west and the Short-billed Dowitcher nested to the south, but mtDNA evidence indicated that these species separated as long as 4 million years ago ( Avise and Zink 1988 ).
Although similar to the Short-billed Dowitcher in appearance, the Long-billed differs from that species ecologically. Short-billeds are found mainly in salt-water wetlands and forage on open mud flats. Long-billeds are more often found in freshwater wetlands; when they do visit marine habitats, they are most common in small pools and in salt-marsh vegetation. Long-billeds breed primarily along coastal western and northern Alaska to eastern Siberia, while the 3 subspecies of Short-billeds breed in s. Alaska and Yukon, central Canada, and the Maritime Provinces.