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The Martin Garner Spurn Young Birder of the Year 2017

The future’s bright!!

It’s hard to believe it’s over a month since the 5th migfest!!  

And with that the 3rd Martin Garner Spurn Young Birder of the Year competition!  The range of entrants was strong.   Nick Whitehouse (pictured at the front below), writes that the competition, “is really producing some real stars…All 3 winners so far since we started in 2015 have been excellent albeit their margin of victory has always been the slightest of margins over the other finalists.  Brilliant crop of young birders coming through.”

A massive well done to the five finalists, Corin Woodhead (age 11), Sami Sankey (age 13), James King (age 13), Angus Jennings (age 15) and of course the overall winner, Dante Shepherd (age 16)!

The five finalists receive their awards.

The five finalists receiving their awards. (Photo copyright Dave McAleavy).

Dante shares his experience of the competition…

It all started when Rich Bonser and Jamie Partridge, my two mentors, proposed to me that I entered the competition after seeing an advert. They suggested it would be a good opportunity for me to meet new people, make contacts and maybe even win a pair of new binoculars. In the initial online questionnaire I was asked numerous probing questions about all aspects of my birding. These included how my interest in birds started, my patch and my best birding moments.

A month or so later I was delighted to receive an email announcing I had a place in the final. After a Skype call with Nick Moran and Nick Whitehouse about the logistics of the day and any queries I had it was all set for Saturday the 9th of September. The initial plan was for Rich, Jamie and I to all drive up and down from London in one long day together in Rich’s car. However, an American Redstart ruined the party and a plan B was soon hatched.

I met Jamie on the Euston Road in the hire car around 4am and by 8am we were crossing the Humber Bridge with Spurn in our sights. Shortly before the start of the competition, as we were looking around Kilnsea Wetlands, a birder told us that a Wryneck was on show at nearby Sandy Beaches. A quick dash to see the bird was successful and resulted in long overdue UK tick for me.

We arrived at The Warren, the competition location, with just 2 minutes to spare and promptly started the competition. This constituted of several stages with a different assessor for each – an estuary watch, a seawatch, a vismig, a bush bash and a lab test. At each stage, apart from the lab test, I was asked to identify several bird species visible in the area. I was also asked some tricky questions during these stages about bird migration, breeding and identification such as how to separate a juvenile Sedge Warbler from an Aquatic Warbler. During the lab test I was asked to identify several bird vocalisations and identify different features of a birds topography. After every finalist had completed each stage it was time for the scores to be tallied up and the winner to be announced. I was amazed and very happy to hear I had won!

Buzzing with the result, Jamie and I decided to explore the area around the gas terminal to see if we could find any migrants. We unearthed a trio of juvenile Willow Warblers and an adult male Redstart. Throughout this time we were oblivious to the discovery of a juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher on Holderness Field until it was too late. Fortunately we had seen an adult a few weeks before at Oare Marshes, Kent but it was a shame nonetheless.

That evening at the ceremony it was a real honour to receive the award from the amazing Ian Newton. Unfortunately, due to the fact we had to get back to London that same night, we left before his eagerly anticipated lecture on migration.

I would like to thank everybody that has helped me along my path as a birder. Especially Rich and Jamie who regularly take me out of the not-so-birdy urban sprawl of London to places I’d never be able to get to without them. I would also like to thank Spurn Bird Observatory and the BTO for organising the event and giving me such a memorable experience. I am really enjoying using the new binoculars! I will continue to be inspired by Martin Garner’s legacy as a pioneering and feather-by-feather birder.

Dante Shepherd.

Dante Shepherd presented with a pair of Swarovski Binoculars.

Dante Shepherd presented with a pair of Swarovski Binoculars. (Photo copyright Dave McAleavy).

The competition is set to run next year.  So if you or somebody you know is interested, keep your eye out on the BTO website for further information on how to enter!  

New publication: Guide to the sex and age of European ducks

By Jean-Baptiste Mouronval (ONCFS), Matthieu Guillemain (ONCFS) and Richard Hearn (WWT)

Nice to see this new high-quality publication by the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage (French National Office of Hunting and Wildlife) in its English version on the Duck Specialist Group website.

ducks

I had only a quick look through it, and it looks great. Nice intro with generic ageing and sexing features, and then detailed species accounts for most common European duck species.

tails

Gadwall

Very useful reference for ringers and for field birders too.

The guide can be downloaded here.

Citation: Mouronval, J.B. 2016. Guide to the sex and age of European ducks. Office national de la chasse et de la faune sauvage, Paris – 124 pages.

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.

 

 

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

Red-necked Nightjar – one species or two?

By Yoav Perlman

Those who read my blog might have noticed that I addressed this topic briefly in my recent post. In this post I will expand a little. A visit to Frankfurts’ Senckenberg Naturmuseum a couple of weeks ago allowed me to take a look at these nightjars. My interest in Red-necked Nightjars arose as part of a project I am involved in, with Martin Collinson. We are looking at phylogeny of several un-sequenced nightjar species; Red-necked is one of them. It is somewhat strange for me to work on a species I have never seen in the field, yet. Last time I visited Iberia it was too early for them. I am returning to Iberia next week for 6 weeks of fieldwork, so I am quite confident I will catch up with them this spring.

Red-necked Nightjar has two subspecies – ruficollis that breeds in Iberia and in Morocco; while desertorum breeds in N Algeria and N Tunisia. Both subspecies migrate in winter to sub-Saharan Africa, where they apparently overlap in their winter distribution in Mali, Ghana and Gambia. However, the wintering distribution in Africa is not totally clear, and certainly where and where not the subspecies mix.

Map

Red-necked Nightjar distribution map from BirdLife Datazone

When I opened up the Red-necked Nightjar tray, I was struck by how apparent the morphological differences between the two species are.  No need for wing ruler – desertorum is visually so much larger than ruficollis! Though I behaved like an amateur and did not measure them, in this case I think the size difference is totally evident:

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

Interestingly, these apparent huge differences are not reflected in measurements from literature. In Nigel Cleere’s 2010 Nightjar guide, males of ruficollis have wings of 196-217 and tails of 149-168, while desertorum males have wings of 198-214 and tails of 153-171. Sadly, there is no mean given, and also not sample size. I need to check more references. It seems that another trip to Tring is necessary.

Apart for the size differences between the two subspecies, their plumages are pretty different too. desertorum is paler sandier below, and lacks the dark chest of ruficollis:

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

From above the overall difference in tones is less obvious, but the broader rufous collar of desertorum is apparent, and possibly narrower black crown streaking of desertorum, that is mentioned in Cleere’s book.

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

There is another difference between the subspecies, in the pattern of inner primaries, that is not visible in these photos. desertorum has a bold pattern of orange and black bands of equal width, while ruficollis has very little orange on the primary bases. Check the 2009 BB article by Tim Melling, describing the 1856 British record (ruficollis by the way), in which the primary pattern is nicely compared.

Xeno-Canto has sound recordings only of ruficollis. I wonder if there is are any differences in vocalisations? Has anyone ever sound recorded desertorum? Sound Approach guys?

So what do we have here?

  • Distinct breeding ranges – or not? The two subspecies are separated by 200-300 km of apparently suitable habitat in NW Algeria. Why is there a gap in distribution there? I don’t know.
  • Both subspecies migrate and apparently overlap in W Africa in winter.
  • There is an apparent huge size difference (see photos above), but this is not evident in published measurements.
  • Clear differences in general plumage tones, and also in patterns of specific feather tracts (primaries, collar).
  • No information available on vocalisations of desertorum.

I find it intriguing that these two taxa breed so close, and possibly are not geographically isolated at all, and still are so different morphologically. What will DNA analysis reveal? Is there room for another SHIPS (Species Hiding In Plain Sight) as Martin C. calls them? I am genuinely curious to find out. Hope to report the results in a few months.

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.

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

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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:

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 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.