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Swinhoe’s and Pin-tailed Snipes- Display Sounds

 Magnus Hellström

A big warm welcome to new Birding Frontiers team member,  Magnus Hellström. Read his biog and see his gripping photo at the end of this post.

Citrine Wagtails and Long-toed Stints fed along the water edge, and a beautiful Rubythroat started to sing from the bushes next to us. A couple of Snipes took off and shortly after three Swinhoe’s and two Pin-tailed started to display intensively and simultaneously above our heads!”Recounting adventures from summer 2013 in Russia’s Eastern Sayan Mountains, Magnus talks about differences in sounds of the display flights of both species. Might even be useful on vagrants which can display… Read on and listen:

OK, I understand this topic is slightly off season but, nevertheless, it will also raise some questions that might as well be discussed during mid-winter (and, who knows, may perhaps also serve as an inspiration for next year’s trip planning). Some of you will probably not find anything new here, but it still serve as a good example of the process of learning…

Pin-tailed Snipe, Eastern Sayan Mountain, Russia in June 2013. Photo: Magnus Hellström.

Pin-tailed Snipe, Eastern Sayan Mountain, Russia in June 2013. Photo: Magnus Hellström.

 

Today, sound recordings of Pin-tailed and Swinhoe’s Snipes may not be too difficult to find. But the situation was rather the opposite only ten years ago, especially if you were searching for multiple recordings of the full display (high-flight, dive and ascent).

The display from both species is structurally quite similar with:

  • 1) a monotonous and highly repetitive sound given during the high-flight
  • 2) an accelerating whining during the steep dive and
  • 3) finishing with a small cascade of short notes just when leaving the dive and entering the ascent.

This was more or less all I knew when I made my first visits in Siberian Russia. I had some frustrating encounters of displaying Snipes in Siberia during three different years in mid-2000’s; at a taiga bog close to Irkutsk, at a vast area of mowed meadow lands just east of the delta at Lake Baikal’s northern tip and also at the Tunka Wetlands, a huge low-land area of open and grazed wetlands, a couple of hours driving southwest of Irkutsk. According to some references the southern populations of Pin-tailed is primarily found in the mountains. This made me suppose (without really knowing) that the Snipes I heard probably were Swinhoe’s which, according to the same sources, inhabit the taiga and forest edges in the low-lands. Today I am not quite sure that these broad generalizations holds true, and to add further trouble it seems that both species display during migration (just like our European Snipes).

 

Taiga bog close to Irkutsk. A couple of Swinhoe’s/Pin-tailed snipes displayed here during a visit in June 2005. Photo: Magnus Hellström.

Taiga bog close to Irkutsk. A couple of Swinhoe’s/Pin-tailed snipes displayed here during a visit in June 2005. Photo: Magnus Hellström.

 

For me, the turning point came a couple of years later during a new visit to the Tunka Wetlands together with, among others, Rasmus Mäki, Ville Kirstilä and Tomi Kaijanen, who had enjoyed the first Swinhoe’s Snipe for Finland a year earlier. During a night walk we stumbled upon a Snipe in full display and my travel mates verbal comparison with the Finnish Swinhoe’s left little reason to doubt that the bird above our head was a Pin-tailed.

A view over the Tunka Valley, SW of Irkutsk. Displaying Pin-tailed Snipes were present here in both June 2010 and June 2013

A view over the Tunka Valley, SW of Irkutsk. Displaying Pin-tailed Snipes were present here in both June 2010 and June 2013

Preparing for a new visit in Russia this spring (May/June 2013) I was hoping for new opportunities to gain experience of the Snipes. We had terrific, but Snipe-less birding in both steppe and taiga before we entered alpine habitat in the Eastern Sayan Mountains.

During our third evening in the area we endured a short but heavy snowstorm. Small banks of snow packed up by our wind torn tents, but an hour later the wind disappeared completely and the temperature rose above zero. As the snow melted we went out and sat down enjoying the quiet evening by the shore of a small lake close to our base camp on c. 2000 m.a.s.l. Citrine Wagtails and Long-toed Stints fed along the water edge, and a beautiful Rubythroat started to sing from the bushes next to us. A couple of Snipes took off and shortly after three Swinhoe’s and two Pin-tailed started to display intensively and simultaneously above our heads! The birds were present during the whole evening and the morning after, providing superb opportunities to compare their respective repertoires. To me, this experience of simultaneously display from both species was very educative, with clear differences found between them.

The most obvious ones seems to be found in:

a) the monotonous and repetitive sound made during high-flight, and in

b) the small cascade of short notes after the dive, when entering the ascent:

 

a) In Swinhoe’s the high-flight sound is a “kxr-kxr-kxr-kxr-kxr…”, rather harsh with an obvious ‘r-component’ involved. This should be compared to the corresponding sound from Pin-tailed; a rather childish and slightly squeeky “chz-chz-chz-chz-chz…” lacking the above ‘r-sounds’ heard from Swinhoe’s.

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b) More or less the same also goes for the ending cascade where Swinhoe’s gives lots of deep crunchy “kxr” notes while Pin-tailed is, again, softer and more nasal, lacking the ‘r-quality’ and sounding more like some kind of a toy… The harsh sounds from Swinhoe’s have sometimes been compared to the Garganey while the softer Pin-tailed have been likened with the hissing sounds from displaying Capercaillie.

 

These differences where very consistent, also in other individuals (Pin-tailed) heard at other locations during the trip.

 

Have a listen to the recordings made during this concert and compare sonagrams:

Pintail Snipe high flight sound Eastern Sayan Mtn, MayJune 2013 Magnus Hellström

Pintail Snipe high flight sound Eastern Sayan Mtn, MayJune 2013 Magnus Hellström

 

Pintail Snipe whining running into ending cascade Eastern Sayan Mtns, May-June 2013 Magnus Hellström

Pintail Snipe whining running into ending cascade Eastern Sayan Mtns, May-June 2013 Magnus Hellström

Swinhoe's Snipe high flight sound Eastern Sayan Mtns, May-June 2013 Magnus Hellström

Swinhoe’s Snipe high flight sound Eastern Sayan Mtns, May-June 2013 Magnus Hellström

Swinhoe's Snipe whining running into ending cascade Eastern Sayan Mtns, May-June 2013 Magnus Hellström

Swinhoe’s Snipe whining running into ending cascade Eastern Sayan Mtns, May-June 2013 Magnus Hellström

 

Then have a listen to the full display sounds of both species:

 

 

(The recordings were made with a Canon 7D camera without external microphone, hence the noise level is a bit higher than wished).

 

Rather easy to tell apart, aren’t they!? Again, this may not be new to you, but still posed a bit of a frustrating problem for me only a couple of years ago (in the pre-Xeno-Canto era…).

 

Eastern Sayan Mountains, June 2013. The Snipes were displaying at our base camp (and the lake just left of the camp) visible in the lower part of the image. Photo: Magnus Hellström.

Eastern Sayan Mountains, June 2013. The Snipes were displaying at our base camp (and the lake just left of the camp) visible in the lower part of the image. Photo: Magnus Hellström.

 

Tranquility in the mountains. The same lake as in the photo above. Three Swinhoe’s and two Pin-tailed was present here in June 2013. Photo: Magnus Hellström.

Tranquility in the mountains. The same lake as in the photo above. Three Swinhoe’s and two Pin-tailed was present here in June 2013. Photo: Magnus Hellström.

 

During a subsequent discussion on the subject, Lars Svensson raised the question whether I’d heard “tic-ka tic-ka tic-ka…” calls from the Pin-tailed Snipes, similar to the ones heard from Common Snipe on breeding grounds? Such sounds can be heard on Veprintsev’s recording of Pin-tailed Snipe (Birds of the Soviet Union: A Sound Guide). On the same recording Common Snipe displays in the background, and that species was obviously present on the locality as well. It seems reasonable to ask the question whether it is possible that a mistake have been made: did the wrong species end up on tape, or does Pin-tailed actually have a corresponding call? A recording of Pin-tailed Snipe on Schulze (Vogelstimmen) also include“Tic-ka”-calls, and on that one display of Pin-tailed is heard in the background. “Tic-ka”-calls were heard at several sites where Pin-tailed Snipes were present in the Sayan and the Tunka Valley 2013, but on the same spots there were also Common Snipes present, and I cannot say for sure which of the birds that produced the sound. Readers of this should feel very welcomed to add any further information or experience to the above…

Happy New Snipe-year!

The number and shape of the tail feathers contributes to some of the differences in sound made during display flights. With big nod to Paul Leader, compare these Pintail and Swinhoe’s Snipe tails- from this former Birding Frontiers ‘Mystery Bird Quiz’:

Pintail Snipe tail,  Paul Leader. 8 ‘pins’ of similar length form outer tail feathers

Pintail Snipe tail, Paul Leader. 8 ‘pins’ of similar length form outer tail feathers

 

Adult Swinhoe’s Snipe tail,  Paul Leader. 6 ’pins’ form outer tail feathers, which broaden noticeably inward.

Adult Swinhoe’s Snipe tail, Paul Leader. 6 ’pins’ form outer tail feathers, which broaden noticeably inward.

 

 Magnus HellströmMagnus Hellström

“Glad to join the team! I’m a lifelong bird watcher born in 1974. I’m a biologist and agronomist and live in Kalmar, part of the huge Baltic flyway along the coast of SE Sweden. I’ve been involved in all kinds of different ringing projects and monitoring programs over the years, working with many small and large projects, both in Sweden and abroad. This has resulted in a deep interest in bird ID (including moult, ageing and sexing) as well as taxonomy. I am employed by the Swedish Ornithological Society as head of Ottenby Bird Observatory where the scientific work today focuses on bird migration, phenological analyses of long-term ringing series, providing zoonotic sampling for external institutions etc. Concerning bird ID, my primary interest lies within the Palearctic fauna and I enjoy traveling anywhere in the east. I was a member of the Swedish rarities committee 2002-2012 and since 2007 I also work as a tour leader for AviFauna.”

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