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Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Frosty wagtail on Faroes

By Yoav Perlman

Silas Olofson, Faroe Island’s top birder, found this super-smart Yellow Wagtail at Viðareiði (northernmost village on the Faroes – how to pronounce this I have no clue) today, 27/11/16. Silas did the right thing and got many photos of it, but most importantly recorded the call on video. At first look, the initial response for this grey-and-white bird is surely ‘tschutchu!’. Also given the late date, and the incredible autumn Faroes and Silas have had, this is a reasonable assumption. But… After a closer inspection of the photos, and listening to the calls on the video, I am leaning towards Western Yellow Wagtail.

Let’s start with the calls:

There are two calls of the bird in this short video. Without doing sonograms, it sounds like a typical Western Yellow Wagtail call. No sign of the sharp Citrine-like call of tschutchunensis. I am not aware of tschutchunensis that call like westerns.

The overall impression of this bird is indeed very close to what you’d expect from a 1cy Eastern Yellow Wagtail, not dissimilar to the Scilly bird that featured recently on Birding Frontiers.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

However, I think that when checking the fine plumage details of this bird, it appears to be an extremely cold-toned Western Yellow Wagtail, maybe flava? I am not sure.

The white wingbars and tertial fringes are rather limited in this bird:

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

I am aware of the fact that this observation takes place almost two months after the Scilly bird, so I am not sure how quickly these wingbars wear off.  But still I think they are too narrow for eastern.

Light conditions were poor when Silas saw the bird, but even in the dull light, yellow tones to underparts, rather prominent yellowish fringes to secondaries, and green tones to mantle and scapulars can be seen:

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Also note that ear coverts are not dark – there is quite a prominent pale area on the frontal ear coverts, below the eye.

A supporting feature is the length of the hind claw. This bird has a ‘normal-length’ hind claw, not the monstrous hind-claw of eastern. Of course this is very difficult to judge in the field, especially from photos only like I did, but my impression is of a normal hind claw.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Western (?) Yellow Wagtail, Viðareiði, Faroe Islands, 27 November 2016. By Silas Olofson.

Well done to Silas for finding this educational bird. And many thanks for sharing the photos and images with me. I know that I put my head on the chopping block here, but I will be happy to be proved wrong – if Silas gets yet another first for Faroes! Some ‘top guns’ have already commented that it’s an eastern…

Please comment. Learning time.

steppe-whimbrel-comparison-landing

STEPPE WHIMBRELS in southern Africa

Title Image: Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable male, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Photo by Callan Cohen.

By Gary Allport (with photos and additional information from Callan Cohen)

In early February 2016, Ross Hughes (RH) and I found a group of 12 Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata in Maputo, only our second record of the species in more than five years of birding in Mozambique. They were of the East Asian race orientalis and most had huge bills, but of interest were two much smaller, shorter-billed birds amongst them. We were sure these smaller birds were Eurasian Curlews but we checked-in with staff of BirdLife Partners running the project to search for the Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris in order to make sure, and we also looked at Birding Frontiers remembering a discussion on a possible orientalis in the UK and Dave Gandy’s nice pics from Bangkok. Richard Porter sent me a copy of a recent paper on Slender-billed Curlew from BB by Corso et al. (2014), which had lots of details about short-billed, male orientalis European Curlews which made the identity of the birds in Maputo very clear; they were indeed male orientalis.

Part of a flock of 12 Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata of the eastern race orientalis. Note the clean white underwings and long bills. One of two smaller, relatively shorter-billed birds bottom left. Salina Zacharias, Matola, Mozambique. January 2016. Photo by Gary Allport.

Part of a flock of 12 Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata of the eastern race orientalis. Note the clean white underwings and long bills. One of two smaller, relatively shorter-billed birds bottom left. Salina Zacharias, Matola, Mozambique. January 2016. Photo by Gary Allport.

However, that BB paper also flagged other little known and potentially confusing forms of both Eurasian Curlew and Common Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus found in the Asian steppes. One bird I had never heard of was Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris nicely illustrated in the article by Szabolcs Kókay, showing pure white underwings and axillaries. It was clearly very little known and I was geekily picking through the references when I found to my great surprise that the type specimen of Steppe Whimbrel was collected in Mozambique! I did a quick post online, asking if anyone knew anything about this bird or had photos of flocks of Whimbrel from Mozambique that I could check; unsurprisingly I got nothing back. I decided to repost with a nice photo of a Whimbrel to attract more peoples’ attention but I found I had no good images of the species myself. Two days later I happened upon a group of about ten Whimbrel whilst on the way to the shops, so I stopped the car, ran onto the beach took some pictures without really looking at the birds (I had my camera but no binocs with me) jumped back in the car and went to the supermarket. That evening I got round to social media and idly put the memory card in the computer – and you can guess what’s coming next – there was a perfect Steppe Whimbrel. I couldn’t quite believe it but I went through the rest of the shots and all the others were of normal phaeopus race. This bird was outstanding with clean white underwings and rump, larger in size and with greyer, cleaner colouration. I posted it online and sent it to my Slender-billed Curlew colleagues, and in the next 24 hours my inbox exploded. When I was finally able to get back down to the beach two days later with Ross Hughes, to our amazement we found another one – two together.

Some quick research showed that Steppe Whimbrel has always been little known. It was described in 1921 based on four specimens from coastal East and South-eastern Africa (Lowe 1921) with a further three records in Africa since then, the last in southern Tanzania in 1965. In the 1960s it emerged (in the west) that there were records from the breeding areas of Kazakhstan and Russia going back to the mid-19th century (by Eversmann), but the last was seen in 1974, and it was declared extinct by a Russian expert in 1994. However, it was re-found in 1997, a tiny breeding population of six pairs in the Russian steppes at the south end of the Urals (Morozov 2000). There were also a small number of possible sightings in the Caspian Sea area but they’ve not been seen since. The Convention on Migratory Species estimated the global population at 100 birds or fewer (CMS 2014).

Identification

Key identification features were given by Lowe (1921) in the type description:

“axillaries, under-wing coverts and undertail coverts were pure white. The back and rump were also pure white with no hidden spots as in Numenius phaeopus phaeopus, while the fore neck and upper pectoral region were marked with thin streaks of brown, not so numerous nor extending so far down the breast and flanks as in typical N. phaeopus.”

Callan Cohen was the only birder to get on a plane and trek over to Maputo (from Cape Town) to see the birds and we spent three days looking at both of the Steppe Whimbrels, trying to figure out what these birds really are, looking at the variability in other Whimbrels and getting as much in-the-field information gleaned as possible. Callan got a series of fantastic photos which greatly aided the analyses and we were able to pin-down the feeding territory of one bird, a foundation for further ad hoc ecological studies.

We found that the two birds in Maputo were similar to N. p. phaeopus, with which they could be compared directly, but had a clean white belly and vent, lacking any dark lanceolate streaking or chevrons on the vent and undertail-coverts; the upperparts were colder and paler greyish brown. The first individual was larger, longer- and broader-winged than the second, and not vocal; it was tentatively sexed as a female. It was also less strikingly plumaged, with more brownish tones than the second bird, but had a primary extension well beyond the tail—a feature so far only found in this individual bird. The second individual was paler and greyer than most Whimbrels present, smaller and shorter winged than the female, and very vocal and aggressive, especially later in the time it was on the beach in Maputo; it was tentatively sexed as a male.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable female, Maputo Mozambique, February 2016. Note clean white underparts with no streaks or chevrons on the flanks behind the legs, clean cold greyish brown colouration and long primary projection beyond the tail. Photo by Gary Allport

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable female, Maputo Mozambique, February 2016. Note clean white underparts with no streaks or chevrons on the flanks behind the legs, clean cold greyish brown colouration and long primary projection beyond the tail. Photo by Gary Allport

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Male in group of phaeopus (third from right). Note greyer colouration and narrow breast streaking forming pectoral band higher up the breast. Photo by Gary Allport

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Male in group of phaeopus (third from right). Note greyer colouration and narrow breast streaking forming pectoral band higher up the breast. Photo by Gary Allport

Based mostly on Callan’s photographs, and our observations in the field the following features were identified as separating the two alboaxillaris from nominate phaeopus (presumed adults in freshly moulted plumage):

1. Axillaries and underwing initially appeared pure white, but in photographs both birds had fine blackish shaft-streaks over the terminal 15% of the length of the axillaries. The underwing primary-coverts were finely barred grey. The axillaries in nominate phaeopus are barred blackish brown and white (see first photo).

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable female, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white underwing with narrow shaft streaks towards the tips of the axillaries. Photo by Gary Allport

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable female, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white underwing with narrow shaft streaks towards the tips of the axillaries. Photo by Gary Allport

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white underwing and clean grey colouration. Photo by Callan Cohen.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white underwing and clean grey colouration. Photo by Callan Cohen.

2. Upper rump and lower back clean white, although there was a suggestion of darker centres at the base of the white back feathers in some photographs. The lower rump showed some narrow dark streak-centred feathers, which varied in visibility, but close examination of photographs showed up to three on the female and eight on the male. The uppertail-coverts were ‘laddered’ with clean black-and-white bars, and differed from the lower rump feathers (the two have been confused in some texts). The phaeopus showed shaft-streaks on the upper rump and many lanceolate shaft-streaks and chevrons on the lower rump, with broader black bars on the upper tail-coverts and normally with a brownish wash.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white rump with relatively fine streaking on lower rump and tail pattern with clean white and pale-greyish white outers laddered black with contrasting darker centre tail. There is evidence that the centre four tail feathers are of a different age to the rest of the tail, being less abraded than the adjacent tail tips on the right hand side of the bird and differently shaped. Photo by Ross Hughes.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white rump with relatively fine streaking on lower rump and tail pattern with clean white and pale-greyish white outers laddered black with contrasting darker centre tail. There is evidence that the centre four tail feathers are of a different age to the rest of the tail, being less abraded than the adjacent tail tips on the right hand side of the bird and differently shaped. Photo by Ross Hughes.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable female, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Note differences in size, structure, rump and tail patterns. Steppe Whimbrel shows ‘tubby’ shape (possibly carrying a greater fat load in order to depart earlier than phaeopus? But see pics of birds returning in August, below, presumably lean and some of which also show the tubby shape), pure white rump with minor streaking on lower rump, pale tail with slightly darker centres.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable female, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Note differences in size, structure, rump and tail patterns. Steppe Whimbrel shows ‘tubby’ shape (possibly carrying a greater fat load in order to depart earlier than phaeopus? But see pics of birds returning in August, below, presumably lean and some of which also show the tubby shape), pure white rump with minor streaking on lower rump, pale tail with slightly darker centres.

3. Outer tail feathers were clean white in the male and greyish white (with a buff wash in some lights) tipped white in the female; both were ‘laddered’ with narrow black bars on both webs over their entire length. The tail was very pale in both birds but showed contrast between the darker central rectrices (patterned with pale grey and black ‘laddering’) and paler outer feathers. In contrast, most phaeopus had pale- to mid-brown tails, barred black and relatively uniform across the tail span. Some phaeopus had a pale outer web to the basal third of the outermost tail feathers.

4. The outer web of the fifth primary (from the innermost) had five clean pale greyish-brown spots, which reached the outermost edge of the web. No phaeopus exhibited this feature, although a few had similar but very faint barring.

5. The breast was finely streaked blackish brown on a clean white or greyish-white background, the streaking ending in a pectoral band higher up the breast than in many, although not all, phaeopus.

6. Both alboaxillaris appeared more bulky – ‘tubby’ – than nominate phaeopus, and had noticeably broader and longer wings in flight, with longer secondaries and more paddle-shaped primaries. At rest, the primaries extended beyond the tail in the female.

Inspection of the type series in the Natural History Museum, Tring (NHMUK), which had been exhibited by Lowe in 1921, revealed that only one of the four specimens has a completely unstreaked rump, the other three exhibit minor streaking on the lower rump, similar to the birds in Maputo, which would probably be invisible in the field but is evident in good-quality digital images. C. S. Roselaar (in Cramp & Simmons 1983: 496) gave the most detailed description of the diagnostic features, which fit very well with the characters observed in the birds in Maputo. Both birds also matched illustrations of alboaxillaris in Corso et al. (2014). Note that Steppe Whimbrel identification will be covered in the new Chamberlain’s Waders guide to Southern Africa by the fabulous artist/author Faansie Peacock . An example of the plates, based on the birds in Maputo, is here. The full account of the finding is accepted for publication in the next issue of the Bulletin of the African Bird Club (Allport 2017). The birds were aged as adults based on their fresh plumage but the moult sequence of Whimbrel is very poorly known so this is a tentative conclusion. The female was last observed in Maputo on 28 February (by Ross Hughes) and the male on 24 March. They were seen by a small number of observers and well photographed.

Finding more

There are all sorts of questions about Steppe Whimbrel – species limits, taxonomy, distribution and numbers – which we won’t cover at length here but the bottom line is we need to find more of them if we are to understand this bird properly.

We have checked all the Whimbrels in the NHMUK and Durban Museum (including the only two known alboaxillaris from South Africa collected in Durban Bay, Dec. 1961 [Allport & Allan 2016]), finding no new birds. But a new record of alboaxillaris was ‘found’ in the public gallery of the Natural History Museum in Maputo (Allport et al. 2016), by climbing into the diorama when a piece of glass was removed for maintenance and lifting the wings of the dusty, old stuffed and mounted birds. There may well be others in museum collections.

The first article with details of the finding was published in ‘African Birdlife’ magazine and in September 2016 we published a second article outlining thoughts on finding Steppe Whimbrel in the boreal winter in southern Africa.

Searches for returning birds in Southern Africa began in August 2016 and quickly led to a series of ‘candidate’ alboaxillaris at the type locality in Inhambane, Mozambique (by GA, Gary Rowan, Maans Booysen and Niall Perrins – see the Birds Mozambique Facebook page and images below) involving a minimum of four and up to seven birds in August to October. One bird was seen on one day in August in Maputo. Two birds were found at Richard’s Bay, South Africa in October by Patrick Rollinson (see SA Rare Birds Facebook page and below). Unfortunately none of these was seen and photographed well enough to be certain of the identification, bearing in mind how poorly known the taxon is. Photos of some of these birds are below.

The first returning ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found in Inhambane, Mozambique 2nd August 2016. Note white axillaries/underwings, larger wings, tubby shape, narrow band of flank barring and grey face. The rump and tail look pale but the image is not good enough to be certain. Photo by Gary Allport.

The first returning ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found in Inhambane, Mozambique 2nd August 2016. Note white axillaries/underwings, larger wings, tubby shape, narrow band of flank barring and grey face. The rump and tail look pale but the image is not good enough to be certain. Photo by Gary Allport.

The second ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (centre) found by Gary Rowan and Maans Booysen, Inhambane, Mozambique 12th August 2016. Note white underwings, larger wings, tubby shape, much reduced flank barring and grey face. The rump and tail look pale. Possibly same bird as 2nd August; but at least three other ‘candidate’ birds photographed around that date but this is the best image. Photo by Maans Booysen.

The second ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (centre) found by Gary Rowan and Maans Booysen, Inhambane, Mozambique 12th August 2016. Note white underwings, larger wings, tubby shape, much reduced flank barring and grey face. The rump and tail look pale. Possibly same bird as 2nd August; but at least three other ‘candidate’ birds photographed around that date but this is the best image. Photo by Maans Booysen.

Third ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found by Gary Rowan, Inhambane, Mozambique, 15thAugust 2016. Note white underwings, white axillaries with fine terminal shaft streaks (the only ‘candidate’ returning Steppe Whimbrel photographed well-enough to see this feature), larger wings, much reduced flank barring and paler face. Photo by Gary Rowan.

Third ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found by Gary Rowan, Inhambane, Mozambique, 15thAugust 2016. Note white underwings, white axillaries with fine terminal shaft streaks (the only ‘candidate’ returning Steppe Whimbrel photographed well-enough to see this feature), larger wings, much reduced flank barring and paler face. Photo by Gary Rowan.

First of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (lower), Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016 (one day only). Note white axillaries and underwing. Flight shots were under-exposed/ taken against the light and adjusted for brightness so plumage tones are not accurate. But noting apparent pale fringes to upperwing coverts, this bird might be a juvenile? Note white axillaries and reduced flank barring. Photo by Gary Allport.

First of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (lower), Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016 (one day only). Note white axillaries and underwing. Flight shots were under-exposed/ taken against the light and adjusted for brightness so plumage tones are not accurate. But noting apparent pale fringes to upperwing coverts, this bird might be a juvenile? Note white axillaries and reduced flank barring. Photo by Gary Allport.

Second of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (upper bird) Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016. Note pale rump and tail. Flight shots were under-exposed/ taken against the light and adjusted for brightness so plumage tones are not accurate. This bird appears not to have barring on the outer web of the fifth outermost primary. Photo by Gary Allport.

Second of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (upper bird) Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016. Note pale rump and tail. Flight shots were under-exposed/ taken against the light and adjusted for brightness so plumage tones are not accurate. This bird appears not to have barring on the outer web of the fifth outermost primary. Photo by Gary Allport.

Last of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (second from right) Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016. Several badly exposed shots of candidate Steppe Whimbrels (of which I have many) show apparent pale underside to the primaries and contrasting dark, blackish, primary tips, which is not apparent in close-up, well-focussed shots. The same is true when viewing birds with the naked eye and also through a camera viewfinder – sometimes they really stand out. Note that the contrasting underwing pattern is a very different shape to that of a Slender-billed Curlew, which has a darker panel on the full length of the outermost primaries forming a dark bar along the leading edge of the underwing. See Figure 2. By Szabolcs Kókay in Corso et al. (2014). Photo by Gary Allport.

Last of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (second from right) Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016. Several badly exposed shots of candidate Steppe Whimbrels (of which I have many) show apparent pale underside to the primaries and contrasting dark, blackish, primary tips, which is not apparent in close-up, well-focussed shots. The same is true when viewing birds with the naked eye and also through a camera viewfinder – sometimes they really stand out. Note that the contrasting underwing pattern is a very different shape to that of a Slender-billed Curlew, which has a darker panel on the full length of the outermost primaries forming a dark bar along the leading edge of the underwing. See Figure 2. By Szabolcs Kókay in Corso et al. (2014). Photo by Gary Allport.

Fifth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found Inhambane, Mozambique, 30th August 2016; one of four photographed that day. Note white axillaries, reduced flank barring and greyer/paler face. Photo by Gary Allport.

Fifth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found Inhambane, Mozambique, 30th August 2016; one of four photographed that day. Note white axillaries, reduced flank barring and greyer/paler face. Photo by Gary Allport.

13-oct-inhambane1

Two ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrels, Inhambane, Mozambique 13th October 2016. These two birds accompanied each other. Note tubby shape and big wings. Possibly the first bird from early August (top)? Photos by Gary Allport.

Two ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrels, Inhambane, Mozambique 13th October 2016. These two birds accompanied each other. Note tubby shape and big wings. Possibly the first bird from early August (top)? Photos by Gary Allport.

One of two ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrels found by Patrick Rollinson at Richard’s Bay, South Africa, 22nd October 2016. Note clean greyish tone, white axillaries and underwing (partly visible), pale tail with darker centres, apparently pure white rump, pale barring on the outer web of the fifth outermost primary, greyish breast and contrastingly paler face. This is a very strong candidate Steppe Whimbrel. There are only two previous records in SA, both collected on the same day in December 1961 in Durban Bay (skins in Durban Museum DNSM). Photo by Patrick Rollinson.

One of two ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrels found by Patrick Rollinson at Richard’s Bay, South Africa, 22nd October 2016. Note clean greyish tone, white axillaries and underwing (partly visible), pale tail with darker centres, apparently pure white rump, pale barring on the outer web of the fifth outermost primary, greyish breast and contrastingly paler face. This is a very strong candidate Steppe Whimbrel. There are only two previous records in SA, both collected on the same day in December 1961 in Durban Bay (skins in Durban Museum DNSM). Photo by Patrick Rollinson.

The sequence of photos of candidate Steppe Whimbrels returning to southern Africa in August-October 2016 show that abraded birds do look quite different. In particular the flank bar is less distinct than both the two birds in Maputo in February and nominate phaeopus Whimbrel alongside. They all show a greyish face, contrasting with the mostly browner breast, in some cases markedly so. Some nominate phaeopus Whimbrel also show this feature so the extent to which it is a distinctive character is yet to be sorted out.

Anyone reading this is encouraged to check their photos and/or look for Steppe Whimbrels, especially in the range from central Asia, through the Middle East and throughout Eastern and Southern Africa.

This work is ongoing and I am trying to keep all the publications up to date on my Research Gate page and sightings are posted to the Birds Mozambique and SA Rare Birds Facebook pages.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Callan Cohen for considerable expert discussion and to Gary Rowan, Maans Booysen, Niall Perrins and Patrick Rollinson for their enthusiasm for finding new birds and for use of their photos herein.

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. 2016. A step back in time. African Birdlife 4(4): 10-11

Allport, G. A. & Allan, D. 2016. A re-examination of two specimens of Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris Lowe, 1921 in the Durban Natural Science Museum. Durban Nat. Sci. Mus. Novit. 39: 41-45

Allport, G. A., Bento, C., Carvalho, M. & Guissamulo, A. 2016. Specimen of Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris (Lowe, 1921) in the collection of the Museu de Historia Natural, Maputo. Biodiversity Observations 7.24: 1-5.

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

Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). 2014. Conservation statements for Numeniini species. UNEP/CMS/COP11 information documents (28 October 2014). www.cms.int/en/document/conservation-statements-numeniini-species.

Corso, A., Jansen, J. J. F. J. & Kókay, S. 2014. A review of the identification criteria and variability of the Slender-billed Curlew. Br. Birds 107: 339–370.

Cramp, S. & Simmons, K. E. L. (eds.) 1983. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 3. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Lowe, P. R. 1921. [Exhibition and description of a new subspecies of Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris) from Portuguese East Africa.] Bull. Br. Ornithol. Cl. 41: 110.

Morozov, V. V. 2000. Current status of the southern subspecies of the Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris (Lowe 1921) in Russia and Kazakhstan. Wader Study Group Bull. 92: 30–37.

Title Image: Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable male, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Photo by Callan Cohen.

 

Juvenile Semipalmated Plovers: variability of key features

by Guillermo Rodríguez

Semipalmated Plover is arguably one of the rarest nearctic shorebirds in Europe, although it has been suggested that its rarity is partly due to the challenge of separating it from Common Ringed Plover. The key identification features, such as the bill shape and the presence of white in the gape, are widely known and well described in several papers and field guides – so nothing new here – but I thought it would be interesting to take a detailed look at the variability of these characters for an identification refresher!

Let’s start with a couple of classic juvenile Semipalmated Plovers to illustrate the typical features. On these birds, note the:

– white above the gape

– yellow orbital ring

– generally delicate structure, with a very narrow rear part of the body

– small, rounded head

– relatively narrow and unbroken breast band of homogeneous width

– short, stout bill with a broad base and a typical triangular shape

– orangish to reddish patch at the base of the bill

– pattern of the upperparts with a broad pale fringe on the feathers of the wing coverts, which contrast with the scapulars and mantle where the feathers have a narrower pale fringe and a dark subterminal line, giving a tricolored appearance (a Cackling Goose-like feather pattern)

– and, of course, the semipalmation.

2

Semipalmated Plover, juvenile. October 2016. Massachusetts. Guillermo Rodríguez.

1

Semipalmated Plover, juvenile. October 2016. Massachusetts. Guillermo Rodríguez.

Variability of key features

Keep in mind that these are all juveniles! Photographed in Massachusetts, September/October, 2016.

White gape: this feature, first noted by Killian Mularney, is extremely reliable. Typically there are two main facial patterns: one in which the dark cheek patch merges with the dark lore line, forming a sharp angle (the “very obvious white gape” type); and the other in which the cheek patch directly touches the bill, but only the upper mandible, forming a small vertical white band surrounding the gape. In the second case, the dark cheek patch approaches the bill at an angle, whereas in Common Ringed it tends to look more horizontal. Practically all Semipalmateds present some white in the gape; however, in around 15% of birds the amount of white is limited or can look dirty, so that it isn’t very obvious and often requires a close inspection. Birds with truly dark gapes are quite rare and they might represent around 1% of the total (see below for an example); even in these birds the brown patch touches the bill at the matching point between the upper and mandible, but never (or at least extremely rarely) touching the lower mandible. It is important to bear in mind that some Common Ringeds do show a similar white gape, as Dani explained in this BF post a couple of years ago.

gapes

Bill: this feature is quite variable, although it’s true that most birds present a stout, short bill, with a broad base, which often creates a concave upper contour to the bill. Nevertheless, in many birds it doesn’t look noticeably different from Common Ringed at a distance, and a few individuals show bills that would be quite typical for Common Ringed. The proportion of birds with an orangish to reddish patch at the bill base is very high, c.90%, and in many birds the patch extends to the bottom of the upper mandible.

pico

Orbital ring: this is another feature which is quite consistent and shows limited overlap with Common Ringed. Most Semipalmateds present a fine but obvious yellow orbital ring, which usually looks bright in direct sunlight. The number of birds in which the eyering looks dirty or darkish (and thus similar to the brightest eyerings of Common Ringed) is low. In the compilation below I show some examples of the darkest end of the range of variation.

orbital

Semipalmation: contrary to what the literature usually states, I think this character is quite variable and perhaps even overlapping somewhat with Common Ringed – or at least, in some birds the difference cannot be assessed in field conditions. Roughly, the semipalmation between the middle and inner toes is very obvious in around 50-60% of birds. But with other individuals, I have had a hard time finding the semipalmation even when observing from only a few meters away, since they show just a minute piece of skin, very similar to the hint of semipalmation that some Common Ringed show. The plate below depicts birds with minimal, moderate, and obvious semipalmations, respectively, from left to right.

montaje_semipalms

Breast band: this is another highly variable character, as shown below, with many birds showing a very fine band or simply a narrow line in the middle of the breast, and others showing an unbroken broad band of uniform width or even a band with two deep rounded patches on each side of the breast, similar to Common Ringed. Instead of shape, I’d highlight two different aspects of the breast band: (I) the colour, which is typically brownish in Semipalmated, and is often concolorous with (or only slightly darker than) the back, only rarely showing the really blackish tones that are common in Common Ringed; and (II) the “density”, as in Semipalmated the band is uniformly densely coloured and the dark-white transition is sharp, creating a well-defined band contour. In many Common Ringed, the feather tips in the band show some whitish fringes, leading to a kind of diffuse pale barring, and the dark-white transition at the centre of the breast (where the band is broken) is more diffuse.

montaje_pechos

Wing bar: the wing bar is known to be a supporting character, with Common Ringed showing broader and longer white bars than Semipalmated. On average there is a difference, but the overlap seems to be considerable (especially with some Common Ringed that showing short bars). Typically the difference is found on the inner primaries, where the bar is narrower in Semipalmated.

montaje_wingbars

From left to right, three Semipalmateds and a Common Ringed (picture by Pablo Gutierrez) for comparison.

Tail pattern: usually not described in the literature, I find this feature slightly more reliable than the wing bar. In both species the innermost pair of rectrices is dark and the outermost is white, with increasingly large white tips from t2 to t5. The size of the white tip, particularly in t2 and to a lesser extent in t3, is much smaller in Semipalmated, so that the total amount of white in the tail is less. In Common Ringed, the increase in white on the feather tip from t1 outwards looks more gradual. However, this feature is usually unnecessary, as pretty much every time you see the bird spread its tail it has also called!

colas

Bottom left picture shows a Common Ringed for comparison (picture by Pablo Gutierrez).

General coloration: most records of Common Ringed Plover in the States highlight how pale they are above compared to Semipalmated. I don’t find Semipalmated strikingly dark, so perhaps the difference is only obvious with side-by-side comparisons (or it could be due to plumage variability of Greenland birds, supposedly the ones that reach the States).

Some difficult birds

It’s time to take a closer look at a few examples of birds in which some of the features are (at least partially) missing:

3

 This bird completely lacks white in the gape, and the bill is relatively slender and longish. It does present other typical features such as a bright orbital ring, red at the base of the bill reaching the bottom of the upper mandible, a uniform breast band roughly concolorous with the back, and a typical pattern to the upperparts.

4

This bird shows a somewhat narrow and long bill, limited white in gape and bulky structure. Again, the eyering, red patch at the base of the bill and breast band are quite typical.

5

The reduced and dirty white above the gape, all black bill and Common Ringed-like breast band make this individual slightly confusing, but the presence of the eyering and the bill shape are quite diagnostic. The pale fringing in the crown is also more typical of Common Ringed, but quite variable.

6

 This is one of the most Common Ringed-like Semipalmated Plovers I’ve seen; the size and shape of the bill, pronounced and blackish breast band, and apparently dark gape are all quite reminiscent of Common Ringed, and likewise, the eyering is likely within the species’ range of variation.

These are likely the most “conflictive” birds I’ve seen during the 2016 autumn migration in the States, out of several hundred birds studied. Therefore, the combination of white gape, consistent eyering and stout bill seems to apply to the vast majority of birds, and it’s very rare that the three characters are lacking on the same individual.

Check out, for comparison, these juvenile Common Ringed Plovers from Spain:

chorlipablo

Common Ringed Plover, juvenile, Galicia, Spain, October 2015. Pablo Gutierrez.

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Common Ringer Plover, juvenile, Madrid (Spain), September 2015. Miguel Angel Serrano Rubio.

This last Common Ringed is partially reminiscent of Semipalmated, with its delicate structure, stout bill, and marked upperparts. However, the dark gape, lack of yellow eyering, and the blackish, broken and less dense/diffusely barred breast band easily clinch the ID.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail in Scilly

By Yoav Perlman

Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla (flava) tschutschensis is the eastern counterpart of Western Yellow Wagtail. It is divided into two main groups – ‘blue-headed’ with supercilium (tschutschensis and taivana), and ‘grey/black-headed’ without supercilium (plexa and macronyx).

Distribution map of yellow wagtails, from Bot, S., Gronendijk, D., and van oosten, H. H. (2014). Eastern yellow wagtails in -Europe: identification and vocalisations. Dutch Birding 36: 295-311.

Distribution map of yellow wagtails, from: Bot, S., Gronendijk, D., and van Oosten, H. H. (2014). Eastern yellow wagtails in Europe: identification and vocalisations. Dutch Birding 36: 295-311.

This is another taxon that seems to get identified in Western Europe in increasing frequency. There are three accepted records in the UK: Colyton, Devon in December 2010 bird that was DNA’d, featured in the definitive article by Sander Bot (2014) et al. (Dutch Birding 36: 295-311), Outer Skerries (Shetland) in 2011, and an old specimen from Fair Isle 1909. But there are some further recent strong candidates in the UK that ticked all (or most) boxes. Some have featured on Birding Frontiers before – for example here and here. Looking back through the archives of Birding Frontiers, the learning curve is apparent – Martin really pushed the boundaries here. With the progression of knowledge, it is possible that BBRC will accept future records without DNA, based on good photos and sound recordings.

This striking individual was present in Scilly earlier this month. To my eyes and ears it is a perfect example of an Eastern Yellow Wagtail. I want to thank Nigel Hudson (BBRC secretary) who helped me obtain material for this post, and kindly shared the ‘story’ of its discovery with me:

On October 13th, while Nigel was cutting his front garden grass, a group of birders that included Mark Andrews walked past his house as they headed out from Lower Moors on St. Mary’s. To his question if there was anything about, they showed him on their camera screens photos of an odd yellow wagtail, and they mentioned Eastern Yellow Wagtail as a possibility. Nigel rushed the whole 100 m from his house to where the wagtail was, and after initial views alerted local birders. They all obtained great photos of the bird and some sound recordings during the few days it stayed in the same area – a selection is presented here.

When identifying 1st-winter Eastern Yellow Wagtails, it is necessary to exclude Citrine Wagtail and Western Yellow Wagtail, and hybrids between the two (like this possible bird). A small proportion of 1st-winter Western Yellow Wagtails can give a similar monochromatic impression; and especially in the eastern fringes of the range; in beema and lutea, 1st-winters tend to be more monochromatic, lacking or almost lacking yellow and green tones, especially females (1st-winter males are on average yellower than females). In Eastern Yellow Wagtails a high proportion of 1st-winters are very grey-and-white. Some show faint yellow tones on the mantle, undertail coverts and tertial fringes, but the Scilly bird is as cold as it gets:

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. photo by Simon Knight.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Simon Knight http://simonknightphotography.zenfolio.com/.

Two Western Yellow Wagtails for comparison:

Western Yellow Wagtail (flava), Bet Kama, israel, 2 September 2013. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

Western Yellow Wagtail (flava), 1st-winter, Bet Kama, Israel, 2 September 2013. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

'British' Western Yellow Wagtail (flavissima), Spurn, East Yorkshire, 6 September 2015. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

‘British’ Western Yellow Wagtail (flavissima), Spurn, East Yorkshire, 6 September 2015. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

Eastern Yellow Wagtails are sometimes placed in the same phylogenetic clade together with Citrine Wagtail, and indeed share some morphological features.

DNA cladogram of several wagtail taxa, from Odeen, A., and Björklund, M. (2003). Dynamics in the evolution of sexual traits: Losses and gains, radiation and convergence in yellow wagtails (Motacilla flava). Molecular Ecology 12: 2113-2130.

DNA cladogram of several wagtail taxa, from: Odeen, A., and Björklund, M. (2003). Dynamics in the evolution of sexual traits: Losses and gains, radiation and convergence in yellow wagtails (Motacilla flava). Molecular Ecology 12: 2113-2130.

The call of Eastern Yellow Wagtail is close to the call of Citrine Wagtail, but not quite there with regard to high pitch and rasp.  Western Yellow Wagtail calls can be divided into two groups – sweet calls of western taxa (e.g. flavissima, flava) and rasping call of east European taxa (e.g. feldegg). I didn’t obtain a proper sound recording of the Scilly bird, but in this rather atmospheric video by Will Scott the diagnostic call can be heard at 0:06 (put your headphones on!).

Compared to Western Yellow, both Eastern Yellow and Citrine show more extensive white tips to greater and median coverts, creating two bolder white wingbars, and more white on tertial fringes.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Steve Young https://birdsonfilm.smugmug.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Steve Young https://birdsonfilm.smugmug.com/

Though rarely 1st-winter Citrine Wagtails show incomplete ear coverts surround, Eastern Yellow Wagtail can be readily identified by wholly or predominately dark ear coverts, narrower supercilium, and pale base to lower mandible, just about visible here in this brighter photo, where some faint yellow and green hues can be seen:

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Kris Webb.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Kris Webb.

1st-winter Citrine Wagtail for comparison:

Citrine Wagtail, 1st-winter, Ashdod, Israel, 16 September 2013. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

Citrine Wagtail, 1st-winter, Ashdod, Israel, 16 September 2013. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

Citrine and Eastern Yellow Wagtails also share a long hind-claw, longer than in Western Yellow. So if you see a wagtail with a hind-claw as long as this it might come from the east:

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Steve Young https://birdsonfilm.smugmug.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Steve Young https://birdsonfilm.smugmug.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Steve Young https://birdsonfilm.smugmug.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Steve Young https://birdsonfilm.smugmug.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Steve Young https://birdsonfilm.smugmug.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Steve Young https://birdsonfilm.smugmug.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Simon Knight http://simonknightphotography.zenfolio.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Simon Knight http://simonknightphotography.zenfolio.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Simon Knight http://simonknightphotography.zenfolio.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Simon Knight http://simonknightphotography.zenfolio.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Simon Knight http://simonknightphotography.zenfolio.com/

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Lower Moors, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, October 2016. Photo by Simon Knight http://simonknightphotography.zenfolio.com/

Many thanks again to Nigel Hudson and Will Scott who helped me with information and contacts; and to photographers Simon Knight, Steve Young and Kris Webb – they all have stunning images of lots of cool birds, check their websites!

Desert Lesser Whitethroat @ Filey International

By Mark Pearson and Yoav Perlman

As in every autumn in recent years, reports of eastern taxa Lesser Whitethroats were rather frequent in recent weeks, mainly along the E coast and N Isles. Several were trapped and DNA samples obtained for ID confirmation. Very often they are first picked up by the ‘trrrrr’ call. It seems that almost every Lesser Whitethroat on the east coast in October has a good potential to be of an eastern origin. One of those that stood out was a very striking individual at Filey on October 17th by Mark Pearson – striking by being such a plain, brown job, that fits well with what would be expected from Desert Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca halimodendri. Not really stop press anymore, but to my eyes worth a mention. Siberian (S. c. blythi) and Desert Lesser Whitethroats were always Martin’s favourite, featuring in many posts (e.g. here and here) and in Martin’s Challenge Series: Autumn book too. In the previous posts the taxonomic position of this taxon is discussed (and always good to redirect to this important paper that clarifies the taxonomy of Lesser Whitethroats). I think that now, with current developments in taxonomy and field birding, classic individuals like this can be readily identified in the field.

 

Handing over to Mark now:

Flushing a small, sandy warbler with strikingly white outer-tail feathers from a field edge just a few metres from the clifftop, especially in the midst of long-term easterlies (delivering Asian waifs to the east coast) couldn’t help but the raise the alarm bells, and from there on it was cat-and-mouse along the nearest hedgerow. Long periods of staring blankly into the hawthorn were followed by intermittently close views as the bird materialised seemingly out of nowhere several times.

Having had several strong candidates for Siberian blythi here over the last few years – including a striking bird a couple of weeks earlier nearby (which not only fitted the visual, but also gave the rattle call) – this bird was clearly something very different. Trying to remember conversations with Martin as well as the features described in the Autumn: Frontiers book were at least partially successful and I roughly recalled the basics (including tail pattern), and after prolonged observations, all were apparently present and correct.

Small-bodied, large-headed, short-billed, short-winged, ‘cute’ appearance; poorly defined weak mask, suffused with brown:

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Sandy brown upperparts, extending concolourously not only over the nape, but all the way across the crown to the base of the bill:

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Noticeably long tail, often cocked

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Entirely white outer web of T6, and extensive white tips on at least T5 and T4

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Field sketch of Desert Lesser Whitethroat tail pattern, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016, by Mark Pearson

Field sketch of Desert Lesser Whitethroat tail pattern, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016, by Mark Pearson

Taking into account the fact that photos of Lesser Whitethroats can often be misleading, particularly regarding the extent and exact shade of subtle plumage tones in different lights, it’s worth pointing out that those which capture this bird’s tones were taken in flat, dull light (and not in bright or sunny conditions that can often ‘over-saturate’ these features); observations fully supported this, to the point that it was almost hard to believe the bird was actually a Lesser Whitethroat at times.

While the assessment criteria of field records of vagrant Desert Lesser Whitethroats is still apparently developing (and my knowledge is limited to say the least), on current understanding and by process of elimination – plumage, proportions, tail pattern etc. – it seems difficult to seriously consider anything else…. thoughts very welcome.

 

Another small comment by YP:

Ageing the bird is possible from these images. PC are worn and brown-fringed (see 2nd image from top), which is typical for young birds. Adult would have broader, fresher, grey-fringed PC. This bird has moulted most of its tail – two central TF pairs are unmoulted, and outer 4 pairs are replaced or growing. This partial moult is also typical for young birds. The central tail feathers are exteremely worn, pointed and brown. The newly grown outer TF have broad and white tips rather than limited off-white tips that are typical for unreplaced young outer TF (see here for demonstration of this).

Replaced adult-type TF typically have more extensive white tips to TF, and more TF with white tips than juvenile-type TF. This complicates the understanding whether a bird has ‘much white’ or ‘little white’. For this, ageing the bird and the TF correctly is essentail. The extreme amount of white shown by the Filey bird is more than any adult-type TF of curruca and blythi can show.

new-doc-6_2

Juvenile Red-necked Stint in Norway!

By Yoav Perlman

On September 23rd, Sigmar Lode, a Norwegian birder, was on his favourite patch at Nærland, Rogaland, in southwestern Norway. He had American peeps on his mind, especially after the decent arrival in Ireland and UK in preceding weeks. Just before leaving, he spotted a small 1cy peep, that structurally was clearly not a Little Stint. Sigmar had two Semipalmated Sandpipers at the same site 4 years ago, so naturally that was his first thought. He knew he needed photos, especially of the webbing between the toes. He fired off some OK shots, but they did not show any webbing! Then he got some more shots of the bird, and thought he saw something like webbing between the toes . Sigmar was happy – that are only few Norwegian records of Semipalmated Sandpiper. He uploaded his images on Facebook and his initial ID was generally accepted.

A few days later, sharp-eyed Tor Olsen, Oddvar Heggøy, Bjørn Olav Tveit and Geir Kristensen noticed further photographs of the bird by Trond Ove Stakkeland that emerged online – these excellent sharp photos shown here courtesy of Trond:

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

NO WEBBING!

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

[First a quick hats-off to Tor – he is a member of the Norwegian Rarities Committee (NSKF). He has had a great autumn so far – he found an (apparent) Alder Flycatcher just over a week ago – the bird was trapped, and DNA samples will hopefully confirm the ID]

Back to the stint: Tor and his peers Oddvar Heggøy, Bjørn Olav Tveit, Kjell Mjølsnes, Simon Rix, Egil Ween and Geir Kristensen reviewed the new images and became certain this is not a Semipalmated Sandpiper, but rather a juvenile Red-necked Stint! It was a real team effort that led to this outstanding ID. Also Harry Hussey from Ireland was involved in the ID process. When Harry sent the photos to me I had no access to literature but my jaw dropped instantly. I will use Martin’s language – BOOM! Or to be more precise FLIPPIN’ MEGA BOOM!

Red-necked Stint is another rare bird in Norway, with four previous accepted records, typically of adults in June – July. But a record of a non-adult is almost unprecedented in the WP – the only other record involves a juvenile Red-necked Stint found dead on Fair Isle in August 1994.  So this is possibly the first European record of a living juvenile! Finding a WP young Red-necked Stint in the field remained the Holy Grail of bird identification for many years. I know it’s easy in retrospect, but looking at these photos – it really is possible to ID them in the field. This record needs to be accepted first by the Norwegian rarities committee, but my vote would be YES!

There are two main confusion species – Little Stint and Semipalmated Sandpiper. A good review of the identification of juvenile peeps was written by the late Russell Slack in 2006 – here on Birdguides. Identification of this bird as Red-necked Stint involved both a ‘holistic’ view of structure and jizz, and meticulous scrutiny of feather tracts. I will try to summarise the main features that caught the Norwegian team’s eyes:

General structure

Compared to Little Stint, this bird in shorter-legged, and longer reared. In some literature it is mentioned that wings always projects beyond tail tip, but there is much variation in this feature and the short projection of the primary tips beyond the tail is alright for Red-necked Stint. Red-necked Stint is also longer-reared than Semipalmated Sandpiper. Semipalmated has longer legs than flat-bottomed Red-necked, and has a shorter wing projection beyond tail, giving a less long-reared impression. Red-necked has a unique combination of a long rear and a rather full chest.

Bill structure

This bird has a short bill, thicker than Little Stint but thinner and not as blunt-tipped as Semipalmated. It must be noted that all peeps show huge variation in bill length and structure, very much related to sexual and age-related variation.

Check these longs legs and long, thin bill of a typical juvenile Little Stint:

Juvenile Little Stint, Ashdod, Israel, September 2010. Photo by Yoav Perlman

Webbing between toes

Practically none! Again, some Semi-p’s show less developed webs, but the Norwegian bird had less webbing than any Semi-p can show. Many thanks to Steve Duffield for this excellent semi-p shot below – he has lots more on his website. Note here the toe webbing and powerful, blunt-tipped bill:

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, Gualan, South Uist,Outer Hebrides. Photo by Steve Duffield.

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, Gualan, South Uist,Outer Hebrides, August 2016. Photo by Steve Duffield.

Moult

This bird has already replaced some scapulars and mantle feathers to 1st-winter plumage (which is essentially similar to adult winter plumage). This is typical for 1cy Red-necked Stint, but would be very unusual for Semipalmated – semi-p’s rarely start moulting (or molting…) before mid October. Some Little Stints already moult in September, but their moult would be on average less developed, and their replaced winter-plumaged feathers are not as pale grey and plain as shown by the Norwegian bird, but have more prominent shaft streaks.

General plumage patterns

Compared to Little Stint, the Norwegian bird has much less distinct saddle V’s, and the fact that it has less black on the scapulars and coverts creates a much less patterned impression.Also the juvenile coverts are very pale and uniform, which is spot-on for Red-necked Stint. The beautiful grey smudge across the breast-sides and into the breast, with indistinct streaking, is also typical for Red-necked Stint. Little Stint has fine, normally warm toned streaks on the breast sides. Semi-p has also more defined streaking on the breast.

The Norwegian bird shows a nice brown cap, warmer toned than normal Semi-p’s. However, I found much variation in this feature checking online images, so I am not sure whether this is an important feature. Semipalmated normally shows dark and well-defined ear coverts, but see the South Uist bird above… I also don’t like the split supercilium stuff- really variable and depends on position of the bird. IMO very difficult to interpret from photos.

Scapulars pattern

Semi-p is known for its anchor-shaped dark tips to juvenile lower scapulars. Little Stint has typically very full, dark scapulars (see in the photo above). The Norwegian bird showed a typical pattern for Red-necked Stint:  thin dark shaft streaks and limited V-shaped dark tips, resembling Semi-p but generally the scapulars are paler and more uniform.

Call

I don’t know if anyone heard or sound-recorded the Norwegian bird, but it should be the best way to identify peeps. Red-necked Stint has a call very different from Little Stint – to my ears lower pitched and softer, somewhat recalling Dunlin. Listen here and here. Little Stint has a higher-pitched and clearer flight call. Semipalmated Sandpiper has funny, drawn-out and soft calls.

So to conclude:

The brilliant ID skills of the Norwegian team allowed this breakthrough in WP Birding Frontiers! They demonstrated that with good views and understanding of the important structural and plumage features, it is possible to identify non-adult-summer Red-necked Stints in the WP. Hopefully their confidence will motivate more keen birders to find further juveniles. Now is the time!

My tribute to Martin

I am honoured that Sharon has invited me – amongst others – to continue to post to Martin’s Birding Frontiers blog, following his untimely death after a long courageous battle with cancer. Before I do so, however, I wanted to write my tribute to the great man. It has taken me some time because it has been very difficult for me to put into words just how much Martin meant to me.

It may sound over the top but I make no apology; Martin was an inspiration to me as a birder, photographer and a man.  I first met Martin in the late 1990s at Poolsbrook Country Park, Derbyshire when he introduced me to the intricacies of gull identification.  By that stage I’d been birding seriously for about 20 years and was no slouch, but Martin’s knowledge far surpassed mine and he opened my eyes. Not only did he open my eyes and expand my knowledge but he inspired me and positively encouraged me to pursue my digiscoping be it video or stills. He recognised my digiscoping skills and his mantra “Be the best you can be” echoes in my ears. To hear Martin say that I was “pushing the boundaries” with my digiscoping is much-treasured praise.

Martin was a real expert in bird identification – he was at the top of his game.  Queries were invariably referred to him. Martin was definitely the ” man who does”.  It’s no surprise therefore that Birding Frontiers was ground breaking stuff,  being  interesting and informative with many learned contributors and experts from around the world. I was really proud therefore when Martin asked me to contribute on digiscoping.

I also have Martin to thank for my working relationship with Swarovski which has been beneficial to me in pursuing my digiscoping passion.

Martin will be sadly missed by me and many others but his knowledge and his willingness to spread and share that knowledge will live on through his Challenge books and Birding Frontiers.

Justin Carr