Tuesday 24 March 2015

Probable Common Snipe

At least 5 snipe have been regularly seen in Ferryland, Newfoundland since late January in the usual snipe ditches.

One of which was noted to be paler than the others as early as January 24th, but it took  2 more months before it was taken seriously. Thanks to Andrea Dicks (who photographed it in January and I rashly identified it as Wilson's) and Bruce M who got some great shots of it last weekend. If it weren't for their photos I wouldn't have been there today with Alison Mews with hopes of getting the crucial underwing photos.

The bird of interest is in the middle:
Note the slightly more buffy tones to the bird - particularly in the coverts and scapulars

The following 4 photos focus on the scapulars:

Note on the Common Snipe that the dark patch at the distal end of the scapular feathers is smaller in comparison to that of the Wilson's Snipes. Also, the orange areas are more extensive and generally lighter in colour. These are the details that give the bird a more yellow impression overall.

Wilson's Snipes:

 This particular Wilson's Snipe was easy to confuse with the presumed Common Snipe due to the similar orange coloration in the scapulars.

Comparing the above 4 photos it seems that the Common Snipe has significantly less extensive dark barring (in number and width) of the covert feathers. This is another feature to help find a possible Common Snipe.

A similar pattern is seen when comparing the mantle feathers of the two species. The probable Common Snipe is in the back with head facing away.

The next thing to investigate are the tertials. On Wilson's Snipe the dark barring is wider than the light bars, and this dark barring becomes even wider towards the distal tip of the tertials. Whereas in Common Snipe the width of the dark bars and the light bars is more or less equal throughout:
Common Snipe is in the back right

Interesting to note the difference in rump patterning in the above images. Not something I've read about anywhere, so may be worth looking into as an additional ID feature.

The problem with identifying an out of range snipe is the simple fact that snipe have significant intra-species variation. In other words, there is a lot of variation from one Wilson's Snipe to the next. And, similarly, there are differences depending on the age (i.e. 1st winter vs. adult). This variation is poorly understood, even when it comes down to determining the age of any individual. Generally with shorebirds it would be considered a bad idea to try to identify a rarity without being able to age it first, but that can't be relied on when identifying snipe.

Identifying this probable Common Snipe based on the above features alone wouldn't be very convincing. Although the tertials, coverts, and scapulars all add up to a possible Common Snipe, the differences aren't very striking (unlike last winters bird).

That's why I returned to the snipe ditch today with Alison Mews with the single goal of photographing the underwing.

Here is what we got:

Compared to a photo of the Wilson's Snipe:

The underwing of the Wilson's Snipe obviously has more extensive dark barring throughout the underwing. This difference is most striking in the median and greater underwing coverts - as mentioned in the Pyle guide.

The Common Snipe has a mainly white underwing with well separated black bars.

Another Wilson's Snipe, with the longest axillary feather just barely visible confirms that this species has wider and more prominent dark bars:

And, for comparisons sake, here is the underwing of last winters obvious Common Snipe in a nearby location. To me, the barring of the axillaries is equal to that of todays probable Common Snipe:

Before seeing the underwing we had a moderate suspicion that this bird was a Common Snipe. The underwing definitely provides strong support for that identification.

A look at the upper-wing of the Common Snipe: 

Upper-wing of the Wilson's Snipe: 

The white trailing edge to the secondaries is supposed to be broader and more prominent on Common Snipe. The above photos are a little too blurry to really evaluate if there is any difference. But I could convince myself that there is a broad white trailing edge to the secondaries of the probable Common Snipe.

Based on these photos it seems that there is a strong case that we have a Common Snipe.

But when you look at this photo taken by Bruce M last weekend, you'd be excused if you have difficulty seeing the difference between the two species:
Common Snipe is on the left (best way to confirm this is by checking out the tertials).

Compared to our previous two records of Common Snipe, this bird is much more difficult to distinguish from the regular Wilson's Snipe.

The differences are subtle. Rushing into an identification is out of the question. That's why we have to get clear shots, preferable with Wilson's Snipe for direct comparison, including the difficult to capture underwing photos. Thankfully we were able to attain all those photos. Now it's up to everyone else to decide if they agree.

Feel free to email me (or comment below) if you disagree, agree, or have something else to add to the discussion/identification:

alvanbuckley AT gmail.com


Some resources if you're interested in looking further into this:


And if you really want to be confused, check out these photos of Common Snipe from Japan:

Monday 23 March 2015

Bird Song Quiz #15

They're back!

Completely anonymous, and answers show up right away.
Feel free to let me know if the answers are incorrect, or if you have suggestions for improvement!

While listening to the following recording answer the questions in the following quiz.

Hint: all species heard in the background of this recording do breed in Newfoundland.

Friday 20 March 2015

First Day of Spring

Arrived at Cape Spear this morning for a morning vigil with sir Ed. Ended up spending 3 glorious hours watching the sea and the sky.

Sunrise started with a spectacular view of the solar eclipse:
This photo doesn't do it justice.
Was great to be one of very few in North America to see this natural event!

Then even fewer got to see the real drama:
To our surprise, flock after flock of Common Eider flew very close by the cape until finally one small flock decided to land directly off the cape which was enough to attract over 2000 in close to the point. Among the thousands of eiders there were 8+ King Eiders!

A line of eiders drawn across the sea:

Can you find Waldo, the King Eider (answer below):

They were so close you could watch them swimming under water:

Can you find Wanda, the Queen Eider (answer below):

 Adult male King Eider:

 Adult female King Eider:

A beauty day to start the Spring of 2015!

Sunday 8 March 2015

v-nigrum Common Eider

Today (March 8) Sir Edmund and I found a Common Eider that best fits the Pacific sub-species (S. m. v-nigrum) off St. Shott's on the southern shore to the Avalon peninsula. This sub-species has previously only been seen twice in the Atlantic ocean:

And, last month, Bruce found what looks like it could be a hybrid between the Western and one of the Eastern sub-species.

Having never seen this sub-species I was surprised by how quickly it stood out from the flock of eiders it was with. It was easily detected in my first pass of the flock that was about 200m away. What stood out was the beaming orange bill:

I knew right away what it could be and quickly got Ed on the bird so that we could study it closely.

There was no problem seeing that this bird was quite a bit larger than the other eiders around it:

But the large size and bright bill aren't enough to confirm this sub-species. The clinching feature is the black "V" lateral stripes under the chin.
Thankfully, within 10 minutes the bird raised its head upwards to choke down a mussel and the black chin-stripes stood out. There was absolutely no question about the black V - it was a thick and unmistakable dark line that followed the contour of the lower mandible!

It was difficult to capture the black V with my camera, but it was partly visible when the bird was swimming away from us:

Some other key features:

One last feature that is hard to see on todays bird is the border between the green hind-neck and white face. On v-nigrum there is a faint extension of the green along the lower border of the black cap. This is not present in our regular S. m. borealis eiders.

In S. m. borealis the green hind-neck does not extend onto the face, and has a straight and distinct border with the white face:


A beautiful bird! I won't be surprised if we start to see more of these beasts over the next decade. With the melting icecap, the Atlantic ocean will continue to be accessible to them. The question is, what else will follow the same journey? More eiders? ;)

And some more shots of our regular S. m. borealis Common Eiders:

Note the variation in bill shape and colour!

Interesting to see that other sub-species can also have black markings under the chin....

The Pacific Eider back on:

Black Guillemot at the same location was in nearly full breeding plumage:
(there was a lot of glare!)

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Another Hybrid Diving Duck

Ever since last October I've been keeping my eye on one of the local Tufted Ducks. It had a noticeably large white area at the base of its bill, the tuft was more of a bun, and it seemed to have a subtle peak to the rear of its head - all suggesting some Lesser or Greater Scaup ancestry.

I got some decent photos of the individual in early February and only just today had a chance to review those photos. That in combination with Sir Edmund's report of a hybrid TUDU x Scaup to eBird last week made me review my photos more in depth.

Here's a photo of her from January 19, 2015:

And another from February 16, 2015:

The tuft, although present, is notably short. I liken it to a bun, whereas in a normal TUDU the tuft is more of a pony. This birds tuft has a more abrupt end, but it is thick/full. The female Tufted Ducks have a tuft that is longer but appears thinner.

The head shape of a female TUDU is rounded at the back of the head - the presumed hybrid duck has a subtle peak to the rear of the head. The tuft conceals the head shape though making the peak difficult to discern. That in combination with the large white area at the base of the bill lead me to believe that one of its parents (or grandparents) is a scaup. None of the other TUDUs have such a large white area - it is definitely an outlier, especially at this time of year.

Also note in the photo above that the back is slightly lighter brown in coloration in comparison to the TUDU that is in the background. This is the only photo I have that shows this, so it may be an artifact  or illusion due to lighting - but it was consistent in the series of photos from that day.

Deciding whether it is a hybrid with Greater or Lesser Scaup isn't so straightforward. But the apparent peaked head would suggest a TUDU X LESC hybrid.

The truth is that this bird was here last winter too. And at the time I thought it was a hybrid but never really kept track of the bird. I also remember some talk about a similar bird in the previous winter and managed to find some photos of it here. I'd say that it probably is the same bird and now has spent at least 3 winters in St. John's!

The odd female Tufted Duck does have some white at the base of the bill (see photo below), but it is always more limited. This photo shows the extreme of what I have seen in Newfoundland:

Some other random photos from the last few weeks:
^ note the lack of snow! Taken on Feb 16!

Common Gull and Ring-billed Gull: 

A Northern Shoveler seen today near St. John's: