On 19th October 2014, whilst on a regular circuit of my local patch – the Plym Estuary – I came across a small wader roosting at high tide with a couple of Ringed Plovers and some Turnstones. Its’ tiny size, and neat proportions rapidly brought me to the conclusion that it was a “stint/peep” and the grey tones pointed to the possibility of a Semipalmated Sandpiper.
I alerted a handful of other birders who I knew would be nearby and after watching and discussing the bird for a short time, we all agreed to put the news out as a probable Semi-p. By nightfall a dozen or so birders had seen the bird and all agreed the news could safely be put out as confirmed.
The bird was not particularly close but we were struck by the grey tones, short primary extension, and lack of solid centres to the scapulars (the internal markings narrowing at the base with some discussion over whether they could be described as anchors or arrow heads). No pale mantle nor scapular lines were evident and some observers were happy they had seen a blob-ended bill. The first two photos below – my poor quality digi-scoped shots – give an idea of the sort of views and impression of the bird, at this time. The following day, more observers saw the bird and everyone seemed happy with the ID, with no-one (to my knowledge) raising any doubts. On this occasion (despite the bird being mainly more distant than the day before) I noticed a narrow pale mantle “V” but this appeared pretty indistinct. However, that evening, I reflected on this, together with the fact I wasn’t sure any credible anchors were apparent on the scapulars and (try as I might) I couldn’t see a bill blob in the field nor in my pics. The lack of solid scapular internal markings and short primary projection, seemed inconsistent with Little Stint and it “felt” like a Semi-p, but I just didn’t have anything really concrete on which to nail it.
I phoned Mashuq Ahmad to share my concerns, and during the ¾ hour phone conversation, he imparted a wealth of useful information, while we looked at the photos. This reinforced my concerns and we both agreed the ID couldn’t be 100% certain. Late that evening I posted a short note on the Devon Bird News blog saying I had some niggling doubts and appealing for views and better photos.
Despite this, by the following evening (after my further views and photos proven inconclusive) no-one had communicated any doubts. My frustration levels were rising but then Alan Doidge emailed me a series of excellent pictures he had taken that afternoon (below) including some close shots of the feet which clearly showed no palmations – it was a Little Stint! Soon after this, Killian Mullarney, contacted me having picked up the “story” from the Devon Birds News blog and asked to see the clinching photos. He has commented as follows:-
“Thank you very much for forwarding me Alan Doidge’s excellent shots of your tricky stint. I must admit, I was all prepared to present a case for it being a Semipalmated on which the palmations were not visible, which can sometimes happen, until I saw the photos; you are of course absolutely correct in determining that it is indeed a Little Stint and kudos to you for having been so cautious about your ID from the outset.
I sometimes come across occasional tricky Little Stints, especially in late autumn. The ones that are most prone to being mistaken for Semipalmateds are birds that have lost much of their bright colouration as a result of fading/bleaching and, in addition, have commenced the post-juvenile moult with replacement of the outer rows of mantle feathers and third row of scapulars (which diminishes /eliminates the characteristic white mantle/scapular stripes). The initial photos of your bird suggest a Semipalmated-like uniformity to the upperparts, without much warmth and seemingly without any hint of light mantle stripes, and there is no indication of the bird having commenced moult. It also has a rather short primary-projection compared to most Little Stints.
However, Alan’s much better shots establish that it does in fact have distinct white mantle stripes, they are just not visible in the initial shots. All other details, such as the crown pattern, breast-side streaking and detailed pattern/shape of the upperparts feathers are more indicative of Little Stint than Semipalmated; of course the clear absence of palmations confirms that it is not a Semipalmated! By the way, some Semipalmateds have a bill that really isn’t significantly more blob-tipped’ than Little Stint, so I would not be too concerned about the absence of that feature on a putative Semip.”
Mashuq Ahmad summed it up nicely saying:-
“The feet don’t lie! Some of Alan Doidge’s quality shots, also shows a pro-Little Stint, obvious pale mantle line and to a lesser extent a more obvious pale scapular line (which has seemingly been reduced somewhat by wear). The bill shape is also very evident in these shots.
These features, plus other pointers e.g. internal scap’ pattern, relatively pale ear-coverts, boldly marked breast-sides and general shape and structure, should also help put to bed thoughts of a greyer Red-necked Stint (which should also really be considered, now that it has been established that the bird lacks palmations). All in all a difficult bird to sort out but you got there in the end!”
The episode reinforces how tricky some Little Stints can be to identify, especially in late autumn. I am grateful to Killian, Mush and Alan for their respective contributions to the learning around this challenging bird.
Pete Aley, Plymouth
Comment from Ontario added 11th Dec 2014
Hi Peter and Martin.
I thought I would add a bit from a North American perspective on that stint. First off, I agree that it is a juvenile-first winter Little Stint. One feature which is particularly evident in the best photo, which shows the bird in profile, involves primary tip position versus the longest tertial. I don’t think there was any mention of this in the various discussions. I should also say that I have studied Little Stint, especially juveniles, in many photographs in anticipation of getting very lucky and finding one here in southern Ontario. At present, there are only two records so far for this species in the province.
To get back to the point, juvenile Semipalmated (and Western) Sandpipers are quickly recognized for their “stumpy ended” gestalt which creates a rather short primary tip projection, with only juvenile Least Sandpiper’s being shorter. To be more precise, P8 only extends a short way past the tip of the longest tertial. P7 falls a fair bit short of it. Though difficult to see in the field, top notch photos of birds in profile show this consistently in my experience. In the photograph of the Devon bird, I can see a fair projection of P8, but just as importantly, the tip of P7 appears to lie just about beside the tip of the longest tertial. I should say that I have found this character in the vast majority if not all of the photographs I have referenced on juvenile Little Stint. Though perhaps not having the diagnostic caliber of relative toe structure, I feel this is a very good ID indicator for juveniles in these species.
Kevin McLaughlin, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.