Putative Steppe Whimbrel in Austria

A Whimbrel showing the characteristics of Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris in the Seewinkel, Austria, April 2017

By Johannes Laber & Gary Allport

In the course of a waterfowl survey on 22nd April 2017 in a meadow north-east of the Lange Lacke, Seewinkel, Austria, JL found a loose group of 25 Whimbrels. Amongst them was a slightly larger and brighter individual. Having recently become aware of the Whimbrel subspecies rogachevae and alboaxillaris (see previous Birding Frontiers post from 2016, Allport & Cohen 2016, Allport 2017) the bird was studied carefully.

In flight the striking pure white axillaries and underwings were seen, as well as a whiter rump and tail. The next day, Ernst Albegger was informed of the observation, which led to photographers looking for the bird and successfully securing some good photos.

Photos by Richard Katzinger (flight shots), Wolfgang Trimmel and Heinz Kolland (pictures of the standing bird) show many features of the subspecies alboaxillaris.  The photographers are warmly thanked for their efforts to capture these images and the use of the photos in this blog post.

On the ground the bird appeared larger-bodied than adjacent phaeopus, and the overall paler coloration was evident due to the larger and coarser pale spots on the upper side as well as the reduced flank barring.  The bird also has a paler face than adjacent nominate phaeopus, with notably paler cheeks, nape and supercilium. In addition, it appeared more dumpy or “potbellied” in shape.  Note that the bird is relatively short-billed and so is probably a male, making the size contrast even more significant.  Male Numeniini are smaller than females, some very markedly so in certain species, but amongst Whimbrel taxa sexual dimorphism is thought to be least prominent in Steppe Whimbrel.

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (right) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (left). Note impression of larger size and more bulky body, and overall pale colouration. Photo: W. Trimmel, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (right) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (left). Note impression of larger size and more bulky body, and overall pale colouration. Photo: W. Trimmel, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria

Unfortunately there are no detailed photos of the complete vent and undertail area but it looks to be pure white insofar as can be seen in the images. The primary projection is difficult to judge from the photos but appears not to extend notably beyond the tail – as in the bird thought to be a female in Maputo – but is similar to the male bird in Maputo (DNA analysis has now confirmed the suspicion that that bird was a male).

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (right and excerpted below) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (left). Note larger size and more bulky body, and overall pale colouration especially the pale face. Photo: H. Kolland, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (right and excerpted below) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (left). Note larger size and more bulky body, and overall pale colouration especially the pale face. Photo: H. Kolland, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Note that the very small area of visible tail edge in the photo below appears to show the correct ‘laddered’ pattern for Steppe Whimbrel, but it is the pattern of the whole tail span that is critical for sub-specific identification so, whilst this is consistent with Steppe Whimbrel it is not sufficient to fully support the identification.

Comparison of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (left) in Seewinkel (Photo by H. Kolland, 23rd April 2017) and male Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) in Maputo, Mozambique (Photo G. Allport Feb 2016). Note very similar bill structure (suggesting that the Austrian bird is a male), near identical face pattern, overall plumage tone and primary projection. The Maputo bird has less barring on the flanks.

Comparison of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (left) in Seewinkel (Photo by H. Kolland, 23rd April 2017) and male Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) in Maputo, Mozambique (Photo G. Allport Feb 2016). Note very similar bill structure (suggesting that the Austrian bird is a male), near identical face pattern, overall plumage tone and primary projection. The Maputo bird has less barring on the flanks.

In flight the bird shows a clear very pale underwing.  Unfortunately the quality of the images are not good enough to be absolutely sure of the detailed axillary and underwing pattern but the characters look strongly consistent with alboaxillaris showing an apparently unbarred clean white underwing, grey-barred underwing primary coverts and contrasting dark wings tips (which ironically tend to show up more clearly in poor quality images of alboaxillaris).  The rump looks to be very pale but again the images are not clear enough for detailed analysis.

4b

Two flight shots of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris showing clean white underwing and barred inner primaries. Note that photos on the ground suggest that there is flank barring present but this is not evident in the underwing shot suggesting that some detail may have been blown-out in the shots. Photographing the underwings of Whimbrel is challenging! Photo: R. Katzinger, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Two flight shots of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris showing clean white underwing and barred inner primaries. Note that photos on the ground suggest that there is flank barring present but this is not evident in the underwing shot suggesting that some detail may have been blown-out in the shots. Photographing the underwings of Whimbrel is challenging! Photo: R. Katzinger, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Two images clipped together of phaeopus (left) and the candidate alboaxillaris (right) showing the dumpy shape characteristic of alboaxillaris. The two images are not from the same frame but from the same series of pictures. Photo R. Katzinger, 23rd April 2017.

Two images clipped together of phaeopus (left) and the candidate alboaxillaris (right) showing the dumpy shape characteristic of alboaxillaris. The two images are not from the same frame but from the same series of pictures. Photo R. Katzinger, 23rd April 2017.

What is also very nice to see in this comparison is another structural feature that fits alboaxillaris – namely the dumpy body shape.  On the below images another feature is the barring of the inner primaries; alboaxillaris (top left) are banded inner five primaries significantly.  In comparison, a normal phaeopus (bottom right) generally shows darker inner primaries.

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (top left and excerpted below) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (bottom right). Note deeper wing, especially at the base of the primaries, and barred inner primaries. Photo R. Katzinger, April 23, 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (top left and excerpted below) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (bottom right). Note deeper wing, especially at the base of the primaries, and barred inner primaries. Photo R. Katzinger, April 23, 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Comparison of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris in Austria (left Photos by R. Katzinger) with both Steppe Whimbrels N. p. alboaxillaris in Maputo, Mozambique Feb 2016 (photo by R. Hughes above and G. Allport below). Note the similarity in tail pattern; the prominent pale tips to the tail may be an emerging feature for alboaxillaris. The barred inner primaries are a useful feature but some nominate phaeopus in Maputo show this feature to a greater extent than is evident from the photos herein. However, clear barring on the outer webs of the fifth outermost primary (counted outwards) does seem to be a feature exclusively shown by alboaxillaris. The barring on the inner primaries looks to be even more strongly marked on the bird in Austria than those in Maputo. Structurally the Austrian bird looks possibly deeper winged than the Maputo birds.

Comparison of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris in Austria (left Photos by R. Katzinger) with both Steppe Whimbrels N. p. alboaxillaris in Maputo, Mozambique Feb 2016 (photo by R. Hughes above and G. Allport below). Note the similarity in tail pattern; the prominent pale tips to the tail may be an emerging feature for alboaxillaris. The barred inner primaries are a useful feature but some nominate phaeopus in Maputo show this feature to a greater extent than is evident from the photos herein. However, clear barring on the outer webs of the fifth outermost primary (counted outwards) does seem to be a feature exclusively shown by alboaxillaris. The barring on the inner primaries looks to be even more strongly marked on the bird in Austria than those in Maputo. Structurally the Austrian bird looks possibly deeper winged than the Maputo birds.

Overall the Austrian bird is a very strong candidate for the form alboaxillaris; all the key features, insofar as they are evident, point towards Steppe Whimbrel. However we are still so early in our understanding of this form that it should still remain categorised as a strong candidate, as a bird which shows features of the subspecies alboaxillaris and we hope that in the future as we understand Steppe Whimbrel better we can assign this bird with a greater confidence.

This is a remarkable record in several respects. On the one hand, the world population of the subspecies is estimated to be <100 individuals, and on the other hand, this breeding bird is best known from the Kazakh steppes and the Orenburg region of Russia from where it is assumed they migrate to the coast of East and South Africa – a significantly more eastern migration. There are, however, specimen records of birds on passage from Hungary in the 1960s which have not been re-examined since they were first catalogued, and there was also a recent breeding record of alboaxillaris in European Russia in 2009 (Morozo & Kornev 2009), albeit in Orenburg, one of the very easternmost provinces.

This record in Austria is significant and may point to a more westerly breeding population, or it may be that as numbers have dwindled that Steppe Whimbrel have become mixed with the nominates.  Either way, there is significant interest in finding birds in the ‘western’ side of the potential range.  Christoph Himmel is planning surveys of migrating birds on the Azerbaijan coastline of the Caspian Sea with a specific target of finding Steppe Whimbrels. More on his proposed work is here, and you can support the research here.

Donating to the African Bird Club’s research fund is also a very valuable way of supporting this work too.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the photographers Richard Katzinger, H. Kolland, W. Trimmel and Ross Hughes for permissions to use their photos.

References

Allport, G. 2017. Steppe Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris at Maputo, Mozambique, in February–March 2016, with a review of the status of the taxon. Bull. Afr. Bird Club 24(1): xx-xx

Allport, G. & Cohen, C. 2016. Finding Steppe Whimbrel: discovery and identification in southern Africa. African Birdlife 4(6):48-54

Morozov V. V. & Kornev S. V. 2009. [Ornithological news from the Orenburg Oblast.] Russ. J. Orn. 18: 2069–2081. [In Russian.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Putative Steppe Whimbrel in Austria

  1. linosabirding

    Nice read and very nice record. Identification of alboaxillaris was already widely discussed in 1997 by me in an Italian journal then on line on a paper dealing with Numenius tenuirostris and then on my paper in British Birds where for the first time this taxon was profusely illustrated by Szaby Kokay and compared with tenuirostris and phaeopus. Therefore, apparent Steppe Whimbrel were already reported for Europe, specifically in Sicily and southern Italy for ex. alongside with some apparently intermediate birds (such one or more photographed in Holland for ex). It is good that now thanks to the Allport actively advertising and spreading his great and many papers on the matter finally that interesting, fantastic and vanishing least known taxon got to be well known and is deserving the right attention…

    Reply
  2. Justin Jansen

    The case with underwing of the Austrian bird, is the light, therefore it looks very pale. As seen here in some birds from The Netherlands (just quickly gathered from The Netherlands from 2017, and only illustrational):

    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13400487
    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13398694
    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13235078

    Therefore – to my humble opinion – it is not safely to establish if the underwing is really that pale (the sole – debatable – character for alboaxillaris to date, as the rest is not established as different from other whimbrel taxa). As shown in BB 2014 in our article, variation in both whimbrel and curlew is large, and the taxa vary considerably. Size, as shown in HBWP varies, and it is tough to establish size in the field.

    Underwing of phaeopus is variable as illustrated in this photo:

    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13316717

    An phaeopus like this, with wrong light can easily look very pale like this bird:

    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13310076
    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13161853

    Undertail is variable:

    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13463606
    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13387886
    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13387315

    and rump is variable:

    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13451032
    https://waarneming.nl/foto/view/13310076

    Reply

Leave a Reply to linosabirding Cancel reply