by Tormod Amundsen
Just back from a family break in Japan. Check out these images mostly digiscoped with new Swarovksi ATX 95.
I heard c 4 days ago of a ‘White-winged Scoter’ identified retrospectively from photographs. It had been seen only on Boxing Day 26th Dec. 2013. The reports made it sound like an American ‘deglandi’. Only this afternoon however I saw the photos for the first time on the Birdguides review of the week. With OCD level of interest in the 3 white-winged Scoter taxa for the last 16 years even with the distant photos, the bird looked instantly like a Stejneger’s Scoter- potentially making it a first record for Britain. Thoughts were ‘tweeted’. I have been asked variously why the Asian and not the American taxon. Had I been too hasty? Thanks to Josh Jones at Birdguides and Brian Egan at Rare Bird Alert who quickly pointed me in the direction I got in touch with Owen, whose wife Sarah Louise took the photos, not even knowing the bird was there. So here’s my quick comment with thanks to Owen. More of Owen’s account will appear on RBA and I also worked on a piece on these scoters prior to all this, for Birdwatch magazine, which I guess… will be in this months copy very soon. Good timing I hope.
There are others but this is the most instructive image. It also seems to be the least blurry/ most well defined so I am a bit more confident in trying to interpret this one, rather than 2 other images provided. Despite being a little blurry, I think it is possible to make out some features with confidence as follows:
Firstly, the reddish part of the bill clearly has a yellow mark running horizontally close to the bill edge. Straight away your into Stejnegeri territory. Indeed it’s essentially a diagnostic character. On Stejnegeri this yellow mark is obvious and well-defined in males. In White-winged Scoter ‘deglandi‘ any yellow is more ill-defined, bleeding into surrounding orange/ redder colours and higher up on the bill tucked under the nostril cavity. In the cases of the first North American record and 3 of the previous Western Palearctic records which I have been involved in (helping to ) identify, this character was the immediately most tell-tale feature pointing to Stejneger’s Scoter.
Secondly the basal knob, allowing for again a blurry image looks steep and with vertical front edge. Steep/ tall and vertical. On deglandi– at this kind of range, it should slope more into the distal part of the bill and wold not be so tall looking. That looks very Stejneger’s-shaped.
Thirdly, the head shape, though at a slightly obtuse angle and not a proper profile seems to lack any kind of obvious forehead. It really should be quite a ‘step between front of crown and first part of the bill base if it was a deglandi. This seeming gentle slope from somewhere on top of the crown is better looking for stejnegeri.
So, mine was a gut reaction at first because it just looked like a drake Stejneger’s Scoter. On closer inspection I think 3 attributes are discernible which together make the identity .. err good for Stejneger’s Scoter. As ever have a look for yourself and make your own mind up.
Thanks to Owen and Sally – and glad Birding Frontiers was a useful resource:
A great find yesterday by David Cooper. He emailed to say he had found an adult male American White-winged Scoter in a harbour in eastern Hokkaido, Japan. Seems to be the first for this part of the world, with the only other records of ‘deglandi’ from the Kommander Islands. Great scoop and likely to see a few Japanese twitchers along to see it today. More here
all photos Ad male American White-winged Scoter, Hokkaido, Japan, 26th February 2012, copyright David Cooper.
and David’s original target- a young male Stejneger’s Scoter, same day, same place
Just over a month ago I was envisioning the guys in Vardø, – they should get Stejneger’s Scoter. Early this morning only 15 minutes north of Vardø, at Persfjordena, Varanger a first summer male ‘White-winged type’ Scoter was found by birder, Tor Olsen and some other guys.
I think they are still discussing the ID in terms of is it deglandi/ stejnegeri. To me in the photos it looks a straightforward Stejneger’s Scoter. Tormod says there is pale at bill tip and age look like a 1st summer (2nd cal yr) male. Great comparison with the Aberdeen White-winged Scoter.
This is the guts of the text from ‘Frontiers in Birding’ on the subjects of Vagrancy and Taxonomy.
Velvet Scoter has reached Greenland (Witherby et al. 1944), and thus seems a likely potential vagrant to North America.
Iceland is the only country so far in the Western Palearctic with confirmed records of White-winged Scoter. Since the first, at Arnarfjordur, northwest Iceland, in June 1993, there have been five accepted records, all in the period May to July including one adult male, which paired with a female Northern Eider (Kolbeinsson et al. 2001). There have also been several records of White-winged Scoter (deglandi) in northeast Asia (Dementiev & Gladkov 1967).
Postscript. Hard to tell exact number of individuals involved due to repeat appearances. It is claimed from 2-8 birds have occurred. Iceland is now no longer the only place that White-winged Scoter as occurred in the W. Palearctic (as of last Saturday!).
There have been four extralimital records of Stejneger’s Scoter in Europe, two of which were initially misidentified perhaps suggesting that others have been overlooked. The records, all of adult males, are as follows: Baie de Somme, northern France, 4thDecember 1886 (recently re-identified specimen: Jiquet 2007); Kemio, southwest Finland, May to June 1996 (Lindroos 1997); Iceland, April to May 2003 (Garner et al. 2004); Gdansk Bay, Poland, 10th March 2007 (photographed, Dorota Lukasik pers.comm).
Postscript: Adult male Rossbeigh Strand, co. Kerry, Ireland winter 2010/2011
Short clip of Stejneger’s in Mongolia taken by James Lidster last week.
Until recently there were no records of Stejenger’s Scoter in North America. In early June 2002, while leading a bird tour to Gambell, Alaska, Jon Dunn, Steve Howell and Gary Rosenberg found a ‘White-winged’ Scoter swimming off the northwest tip of St Lawrence Island. They had witnessed a small, but consistent, spring passage of White-winged Scoters in late May and early June in each of the previous twenty-five years they had collectively led tours to Gambell, but this was the first time that a swimming bird had been found there. JD was the first to notice that this male-plumaged bird had ‘black’ flanks, unlike normal deglandi White
This record was subsequently pre-dated when a photograph was discovered of an adult male Stejneger’s Scoter taken at Cape Nome, Alaska, by Brad Bergstrom on 30th May 2001 (Garner et al. 2004). Given this overlooked record and the fact that most birds are seen only in flight off Gambell (see above), it seems likely that Stejneger’s Scoter actually occurs more commonly in North America.
In a paper published back in 1914 Henry Thurston illustrated not 3 but 6 species of Scoter (see Dwight 1914). Under the genus of Oidemia the six recognized species were:
Oidemia americana = Black Scoter
Oidemia nigra = Common Scoter
Oidemia fusca = Velvet Scoter
Oidemia deglandi = (American) White-winged Scoter
Oidemia carbo = Stejneger’s Scoter or Asian White-winged Scoter
Oidemia perspicillata = Surf Scoter
Since then the genus has changed to Melanitta and in the ‘west’ the 6 Species were lumped into 3 Species during the early/ middle part of the 20th Century. With some bird forms there have been genuine discoveries in the last couple of decades about biology, behaviour and characteristics (including molecular data) that have caused an elevation of a former subspecies to species status. Examples such as Taiga Flycatcher, Balearic Shearwater and Hume’s Warbler spring to mind. However some taxonomic changes, and are more of a pendulum swing simply reflecting current trends rather than new information, and this is certainly more the case with the Scoters. Past authors such as Dwight fully recognized the very significant differences in bill structures, feathering around the bill base and some plumage differences that caused them to see specific status for these birds as axiomatic. More recently the BOURC split Black Scoter and ‘American’ White-winged Scoter (Collinson et.al. 2006), and the criteria used are largely the same as those evident in Dwight (save for difference in courtship call between Common and Black Scoters).
Russians ornithologists have had these species splits in place for many years. Here is how the taxonomic situation looks currently under the BOURC:
Melanitta americana = Black Scoter
Melanitta nigra = Common Scoter
Melanitta fusca = Velvet Scoter
Melanitta deglandi (ssp. deglandi and stejnegeri) = (American) White-winged and Stejneger’s Scoter
Melanitta perspicillata = Surf Scoter
It may sound presumptuous, but by simply applying established criteria (Helbig et al. 2002) it is clear that all 3 forms of ‘white-winged Scoter’ display more than sufficient criteria for them all to be classified as full species. They well-defined biological and evolutionary species. It is anticipated that any DNA/Phylogenetic studies will further establish this taxonomic position.
All three taxa are diagnosable in the field and exhibit differences at all ages and in all plumages (e.g. Dwight 1914, Witherby et al.1944, Cramp & Simmons 1977, Gardarsson 1997, Garner 1999, Garner 2004). They also appear to be reproductively isolated: they have essentially separate breeding and wintering ranges, and there is no evidence of interbreeding or clinal variation. Thus, according to the criteria proposed by Helbig et al. (2002), they can justifiably be classified as three separate species:
Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca (Linnaeus 1758)
White-winged Scoter M. deglandi (Bonaparte 1850)
Stejneger’s Scoter M. stejnegeri (Ridgway 1887)
Got phone call y’day evening from top geezer Chris Gibbins. Chris, Paul Baxter and Hywel Maggs hade seen an interesting first summer male Scoter (with white wings). Trouble is it’s a way out , hard to see the fullest details on, and picture are not all easy to obtain.
They are rightly cautious!
Nevertheless looking through the photos and listening to Chris’ description 3 things stand out:
1) The colour on the bill is restricted towards the bill tip lacking the full reach back of young male Velvet (young males ghost the adult male pattern)
2) the colour is pinkish (yellow on Velvet)
3) the head shape is peculiarly squarish, fuller (more Eider-like) and in the first of the photos below look spot on for American White-winged Scoter.
They are in full agreement that these features are present on field views. The reason I use the word candidate above, is I really think it is one- but given the pressure on folk travelling, spending money, and the fact that this will be a First for Britain– it’s an anxious thing to make such a big call. They wish they had better views, but they are courageously willing to stick their collective neck out- and I think with very good reason!
American White-winged Scoter, Blackdog, Aberdeen, 11 and 12th June 2011
Nick Littlewood then obtained better photos today and they were able to confirm features such as profile of head and bill and extent of colour on the bill. The bird is moulting inner primaries/ outer secondaries so would be expected to hang around for a while…
Thanks to David Cooper- 2 v. helpful photos of 1st summer male White-winged Scoter taken at Point Pelee last month. (Nostalgic mo- where I saw my first in 1985!)
(all photos below Chris Gibbins – yesterday)
in first summer plumage
Hope this helps, as I have been asked this question a couple times already. Basically the head/ bill profile is actually v different between White-winged and Stejneger’s. On White-winged there is a 2 ‘stepped’ profile versus a continuous line from crown to basal knob on Stejneger’s. This is obvious on adults but also true (to lesser extent) on first summer males. Furthermore the ‘yellow lick’ originally highlight as an easy ‘aid memoire’ for male Stejneger’s is also apparent on 1st summer males as bill colour appears. Ian Lewington illustrated it when we worked on it together. You can hopefully see what I mean below.
It’s of course a lot easy on a bird at point black range than one on choppy seas, but the lack of yellow lick on the Aberdeen bird and the stepped profile, points most favourably towards American White-winged.