grupo IMG_1189

A nice flock of White-winged Scoters

by Guillermo Rodríguez

Although White-winged Scoter is very common in winter along the east coast of the US and Canada, they are rarely found close enough to shore to see plumage details, or at least rarely in large numbers. In late November 2016, a huge flock of this species built up off Crane Beach, Massachusetts. The 700+ birds were feeding on an unidentified species of mollusk for a period of roughly one week, very close to shore (at least by scoter standards). The Crane Beach flock provided an exceptional opportunity to study a large number of individuals, which I couldn’t let pass. Despite the freezing ocean breeze on a very windy day, I managed to take a good number of pictures that show the variability of some key characters well.

Below I present a small sample of my pictures from that day, with the goal of revisiting and testing some of the identification and ageing criteria (presented in eg Garner et al. (2004), Reeber (2016)).

WARNING! This post contains many pictures!

All photos were taken on November 23rd, 2016, in Massachusetts. Note that due to the warm light of the sunrise most birds look very brown-tinged, but they usually look much darker in the overcast light conditions that are typical of NW Europe.

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The mollusk they were feeding on – Eastern Slippery Shell?

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White-winged Scoter: a juvenile male (right at the center) with three adult females and three adult males.

Adult males (including second-years)

Here are some pictures of adult males showing the variability of the bill pattern, the white tick mark at the eye, and the extension of brown on the flanks. As is well known, the characteristic head shape and the bill pattern allow a straightforward separation from both Stejneger’s and Velvet Scoters.

male hint of horn IMG_0637

White-winged Scoter, adult male.

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White-winged Scoter, adult male. Note the particular shape of the flank feathers.

This male (below) presents a “hint of horn”, not very different from that shown by some Stejneger’s (see, for comparison, the Stejneger’s seen in December in Alicante, Spain), and a quite equilateral nostril. The “two-stepped” head profile, lacking the oval, eider-like shape of Stejneger’s, is still very obvious.

comparacion_stejnegeri_lowres

White-winged Scoter (left) and the recent Stejneger’s Scoter (right) from Alicante, Spain. The Stejneger’s picture © Jana Marco, one of the finders of this mega!

Some second winter individuals completely lack the white mark behind the eye, whereas in others it’s present but is still shorter than in older birds. Head and bill shape, including the markedly two-stepped profile, is usually not fully developed at this age and some still show a relatively flat head profile. Bill tip is uniformly pink, with thicker black margins than in adults. Lack of the tricolored bill pattern of adults is also typical of a young age. Some of these young adult males seem to lack the brownish feathers on the flanks, and look more uniformly black than adults.

second winter IMG_1047

White-winged Scoter, second year male, lacking white tick mark.

second winter vuelo IMG_0655

White-winged Scoter, second year male, with limited eye tick mark.

young male comparison IMG_1181

White-winged Scoter, “young” adult male (presumed 2w), showing typical immature features such as greyish iris and pink bill, lacking any yellowish or orangeish tones.

adult male and yound IMG_1272

White-winged Scoter, adult male (left) and a male showing some immature traits (right), eg short eye tick mark, pink bill and not fully developed bill knob.

[Ageing female-type birds]
Ageing of female-plumaged birds is often simple, as many adult females are completely dark and even jet black. Differences in the head shape, the shape of the wing coverts (which are uniformly fresh and rounded in juveniles, and more squared in adults) and the paler belly in juveniles are also supportive. However, the most important feature for me is probably the pattern of the GCs and, in particular, the presence of white tips. The pattern is usually difficult/impossible to see when the birds are on the water, so it usually requires pictures in flight:
adult females: completely dark inner GCs, but the white tip sharply increases in size in the meadial GCs and can occupy almost the entire feather
first-year males: usually a small spot at the feather tip, of uniform size in all the Gcs or at most a gradual and slight increase, but always occupying <50% of the feather
first-year females: very small or completely absent white spot in all GCs

adult female vuelo IMG_0648

White-winged Scoter, adult female: note largely white medial GCs, bright reddish feet, squared wing coverts, very broad primaries.

female oscura vuelo IMG_8805

White-winged Scoter, adult female.

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White-winged Scoter, first winter male: limited amount of white in the GCs

first year male vuelo IMG_0665

White-winged Scoter, first winter male.

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White-winged Scoter, first winter female.

I guess ageing criteria are the same for Velvet, but I never had the chance to look into the subject in detail in Europe (Velvet is regular but scarce in Spain). I usually find it problematic to understand the pattern and variability of s1, which is sometimes described as the key feature to age these scoters, so I won’t make further comments on this feature.

Adult females

Adult females vary from very dark birds (looking like a “dirty” version of adult males) to those having the more classic brown plumage with two pale areas on the face. I think that the first type is actually much more common than the latter; the number of these overall black birds within the population appears to be only slightly lower than the number of adult males eg from a sample of 205 birds, 14.6% were adult males and 12.2% were these black presumed females. I wonder if there is an age-related variability, and the black birds are actually the older females.

female oscura del todo IMG_1267

White-winged Scoter, adult female.

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White-winged Scoter, adult female: note the squarish shape of the wing coverts.

hembra adulta puntos IMG_0208

White-winged Scoter, adult female.

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White-winged Scoter, female: dark below, slight bill bump, apparent bright feet, not very uniform back feathers… not sure about the age, could this bird be an adult?

The black-plumaged individuals are sometimes identified as first-year males with an extensive first pre-formative moult, but I think this explanation can be safely ruled out based on the GCs pattern (see the shots in flight above), the bright color of the feet, the dark irises, and the squared wing coverts shown by most of these birds. Only when the formative moult is much more advanced, around late January/February, first-winter males look similar, although with a much dirtier plumage, often looking “patchy” and not as uniformly jet black.

adult females with first year juv deglandi first winter male IMG_0199

White-winged Scoter, two adult females with a first-year male (right).

The head shape of these birds actually recalls that of adult males, due to a squarish head with a flat crown, a straight (non-concave) forehead profile and the hint of a bump at the bill base, leading to a two-stepped head profile, although it is much smoother than in males. Although the differences are sometimes subtle, I think these features are distinctive enough to allow separation from Velvet in most cases. Take a look at this compilation to get a sense of the variability in head and bill shape in adult females:

adult_female_lowq

White-winged Scoter, adult females: variability in head and bill shape.

Note that some adult females present some diffuse pink “brush-strokes” at the bill tip, but the iris seems to be pretty dark in all the individuals (cf first winter males, see below).

First-year males

By late November, juveniles still look very fresh, and the pale velvet at the base of the bill often looks nicely neat. Around 40-50% show what seem to be signs of moult around the face, and a few males have already developed a pale greyish iris and pink in the bill. But even birds that still have a completely juvenile appearance can be readily sexed by the elongated bill and very flat head profile, in contrast to females, which show a shorter bill and often a slightly angular (concave) head profile.

comparison juvs IMG_1226

White-winged Scoters, first-year male (left) and first winter female (right). In my opinion, many juveniles can be reliably sexed in the field on grounds of the head and bill shape. Note, on the back, another first year female (left) and first year male (right).

no todos IMG_1118

White winged Scoter, first year birds. Sexing is definitely not always possible – this bird (center) looks intermediate, or perhaps on the female side?

first winter male prototypical IMG_9499

White-winged Scoter, first-year male: a nice bird still in completely juvenile plumage.

1w male moulted IMG_1260

White-winged Scoter, first-year male: gradual lightening of the iris, traces of moult around the face.

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White-winged Scoter, first-year male. This looks like a VERY advanced first year male.

Regarding the separation from Velvet, in addition to the head shape, the shape of the feathering at the base of the bill is quite distinctive given sufficiently close views; it extends further onto the bill than in Velvet and forms a 90-degree angle in the lower corner, always below the position of the nostril. A few more examples of (presumed) first-year males:

first_winter_male

White-winged Scoter, first-year males: variation in head and bill shape.

firsst winter male bill IMG_1254

White-winged Scoter, first-year male. Interesting individual with a narrow bill, and relatively rounded shape of the feathering at the lower corner of the bill base.

First-year females

Undoubtedly the most problematic group, many first-year females look very similar overall to Velvet Scoter. With short bills, and often concave and rounded head profiles, it may be extremely difficult to pick one out among a flock of Velvets. However, the shape of the feathering at the base of the bill, even if it is not as distinctive as it is in males, is still quite a good character when properly seen. Most birds (>60-70% ?) clearly show, below the nostril, a right angle:

first year pico ejemplo IMG_1247

White-winged Scoter, first-year female.

first year female perfect IMG_1267

White-winged Scoter, first-year female.

hembras cabezas IMG_0380

White-winged Scoter, first-year females. In a few juveniles, the pale spots merge, giving a striking appearance.

first year female perfil IMG_0410

White-winged Scoter, first-year female – convex and rounded head profile, similar to Velvet.

first_winter_female_lowres2

White-winged Scoter, first-year female: variation in head and bill shape.

In a few birds the angle is not as sharply defined, looking rounder and closer to the nostril, and the pattern is probably consistent with Velvet. But this seems to be the exception and not the norm!

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White-winged Scoter, first-year female, showing a rounded corner of the feathering at the bill base.

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White-winged Scoter, presumed first-year female.

Variation in adult Cabot’s Tern and Sandwich Tern

By Yoav Perlman

With special assistance from Mike Langman and Guillermo Rodriguez

These two tern species from both sides of the Atlantic look very similar, but in fact are not even the closest relatives – based on genetics, Cabot’s Tern was found to be a sister species of Elegant Tern. Sandwich Tern Thalasseus sandvicensis is monotypic, and Cabot’s Tern includes Thalasseus a. acuflavida and another taxon – Cayene Tern T. a. eurygnatha. This post deals only with nominate acuflavida.

In his Challenge Series Autumn book, Martin Garner dedicated a chapter to them. And of course there’s Garner et al. 2007 DB article. Though not a frequent visitor to Europe as other American gulls and terns, the potential to find a Cabot’s Tern in Europe remains, in light of records of both taxa on both sides of the Atlantic. Additionally, one individual in October 2016 on Tereceira, Azores in October 2016 was first claimed as Cabot’s Tern and caused a bit of a headache. Therefore, I think it is worth revisiting the main ID criteria to separate the two species. I must stress that I am no expert on Cabot’s Tern ID, so I hugely appreciate the valuable help I received from Mike Langman, Guillermo Rodriguez and Julian Hough who certainly are experts. In this post I will try to demonstrate some variation in both species regarding main ID criteria, but I think that still most individuals can be safely identified, within the known limits of variation. That’s why it’s important to document and acknowledge this variation in both species.

Bill structure

The thumb rule is that Cabot’s Tern has a thicker, heavier-based and straighter bill, with an obvious gonydeal angle. Not quite Great Black-backed Gull gonys, but it is still there. Most literature mentions that Sandwich Tern has a proportionately longer bill, without any gonys (really?), and a distinct drooping tip.

I don’t know much about bill development in terns, but I know that in gulls very often adults have heavier bills than young birds, with more pronounced gonydeal angle. The same goes for sexual differences in bill structure – male gulls have larger and heavier bills than females. So possibly some variation in tern bills is age and sex related?

This is a nice, heavy-billed Cabot’s Tern (in April, I know…) showing a pronounced gonys:

Cabot's Tern, High Island, Texas, USA, April 2016. Photo by Guillermo Rodriguez

Cabot’s Tern, High Island, Texas, USA, April 2016. Photo by Guillermo Rodriguez

This Cabot’s Tern has a slightly thinner bill with almost no gonys, but it is still very straight, lacking the drooping tip of a sandwich.

Cabot's Tern, High Island, Texas, USA, April 2016. Photo by Guillermo Rodriguez

Cabot’s Tern, High Island, Texas, USA, April 2016. Photo by Guillermo Rodriguez

This is a typical Sandwich Tern, with a long, slender bill, distinctly downcurved, and lacking any gonys:

Sandwich Tern, Arrecife , Lanzarote, Canary islands, September 2011. Photo by David Perez

Sandwich Tern, Arrecife, Lanzarote, Canary Islands, September 2011. Photo by David Perez

Though some Sandwich Terns show a rather pronounced gonys, the bill always looks slender and downcurved:

Sandwich Tern, Arrecife, Lanzarote, Canary islands, October 2011. Photo by David Perez

Sandwich Tern, Arrecife, Lanzarote, Canary Islands, October 2011. Photo by David Perez

Note also that in literature it is mentioned that on average, adult Cabot’s Terns shows a more extensive yellow tip to the bill than Sandwich Terns. There is lots of variation in this, and I suspect that like in other terns this variation in bill tip pattern may be related to breeding condition and sex.

Pattern an overall ‘darkness’ of primaries

Cabot’s Tern has generally darker primaries than Sandwich Tern. There is a difference between the two species in both the base colour of the primaries, and the width of the pale fringes to each primary, especially on the inner web. Sandwich tern also shows a pale ‘hook’ on the outer webs of old and new primaries, while Cabot’s tern apparently never has pale markings on the outer webs. It should be noted that in both species, old and worn primaries before moult are darker and have narrower pale fringes, so a worn Sandwich Tern just before moult can look as dark as a freshly-moulted Cabot’s Tern. Therefore, it is important to understand whether the primaries used for identification are fresh or worn.

This is a typically dark-winged Cabot’s Tern, in late September:

Cabot's Tern, Tulum, Yucatan, Mexico, 25 September 2016. Photo by Mike Langman.

Cabot’s Tern, Tulum, Yucatan, Mexico, 25 September 2016. Photo by Mike Langman.

Check this individual, also in late September: it has an overall paler wingtip, with rather broad pale outer webs. Also, it is not easy to understand the exact pattern of the worn outer primaries. Seem to have no pale on the outer webs but I’m not sure what exactly is going on there:

Cabot's Tern, Tulum, Yucatan, Mexico, 25 September 2016. Photo by Mike Langman.

Cabot’s Tern, Tulum, Yucatan, Mexico, 25 September 2016. Photo by Mike Langman.

Sandwich Tern typically gives a pale impression to wingtip, with prominent pale inner and outer webs to outer primaries, that it had almost completed moulting in October:

Sandwich Tern, Arrecife, Lanzarote, Canary Islands, October 2011. Photo by David Perez

Sandwich Tern, Arrecife, Lanzarote, Canary Islands, October 2011. Photo by David Perez

This September Sandwich Tern has a really dark wingtip, with very narrow pale fringes to visible outer primaries:

Sandwich Tern, Salinas de la Tapa, Cadiz, Spain, 9 September 2011. Photo by David Perez.

Sandwich Tern, Salinas de la Tapa, Cadiz, Spain, 9 September 2011. Photo by David Perez

Moult (or molt?) timing

There is some conflicting information about this. Adult Sandwich and Cabot’s Terns perform an arrested moult, in which it replaced 5-6 inner primaries before migration, and then the rest after migration. In ‘Challenge Series Autumn’ Martin Garner wrote that Sandwich Tern moults earlier than Cabot’s and mentions that Cabot’s moults the outer primaries late, in December – January, with some individuals showing unmoulted primaries in March. Pyle mentions in his book that Cabot’s moult P8-P10 Between October and March. Malling Olsen and Larsson even write in their tern guide that P10 can be moulted between March and June. Quite a broad temporal window. And to make it even more complicated, according to the brand new BTO guide Identification of European Non-Passerines, some Sandwich Terns complete their moult by late October, while others complete this moult only in winter. So a complete or near-complete moult in mid-autumn (October) indicates Sandwich Tern, but it doesn’t seem to work the other way – late moult in late autumn (November – December) does not necessarily exclude Sandwich Tern. Using early moult to identify a vagrant Sandwich in North America is fine, but late moult is not necessarily a sign for a vagrant Cabot’s in Europe.

Crown pattern

Basically, Cabot’s Tern has darker and more solid rear crown, with longer feathers and very few if any white tips. Crown is rather clean white. Cabot’s also tend to show more black around and in front of the eye. Not sure about this one… Sandwich Tern has a paler rear crown, with more white tips – often referred as ‘peppered’ rear crown. There are more dark feathers on the crown itself. However… variation here too. Quite a peppered rear crown on this September Cabot’s. Top crown is clean though.

Cabot's Tern, Tulum, Yucatan, Mexico, 25 September 2016. Photo by Mike Langman.

Cabot’s Tern, Tulum, Yucatan, Mexico, 25 September 2016. Photo by Mike Langman

This is a more normal-looking Cabot’s tern, with a rather solid black rear crown, though there are quite many white feathers mixed. Very clean white crown. But oh no, look at the pale ‘hook’ around the primaries…

Cabot's Tern, Florida, USA, 21 January 2007. Photo by Julian Hough.

Cabot’s Tern, Florida, USA, 21 January 2007. Photo by Julian Hough.

A beautiful demonstration of the dirty crown of Sandwich Tern:

Sandwich Tern, Ijmuiden, Netherlands, 23 September 2012. Photo by Marten Miske

Sandwich Tern, Ijmuiden, Netherlands, 23 September 2012. Photo by Marten Miske

Check the rather solid dark rear crown of this October Sandwich Tern:

Sandwich Tern, Norfolk, UK, October 2016. Photo by Mike Dawson

Sandwich Tern, Norfolk, UK, October 2016. Photo by Mike Dawson

Terceira, Azores, October 2016 individual

This individual was on the Nearctic magnet archipelago last October. Some friends are writing about this individual so I will refrain from expressing my view on it. Here are some images – judge for yourself:

... Tern, Terceira, Azores, October 2016. Photo by Mika Bruun.

… Tern, Terceira, Azores, October 2016. Photo by Mika Bruun.

... Tern, Terceira, Azores, October 2016. Photo by Mika Bruun.

… Tern, Terceira, Azores, October 2016. Photo by Mika Bruun.

... Tern, Terceira, Azores, October 2016. Photo by Daniel Mauras.

… Tern, Terceira, Azores, October 2016. Photo by Daniel Mauras.

In the next episode – hatch-year birds…

Many thanks to all the talented photographers, to Killian Mullarney and to Nick Watmough who contributed to this post!

Sykes’s Nightjar – new to Oman

By Yoav Perlman

Happy New Year to all our followers. Hope you had a great holiday.

I received this nice story from two Spanish birders who visited Oman in December 2016 – Albert Burgas and Àlex Ollé. Oman is a true frontier for WP birders – such an amazing country with strong Afrotropical and Asian influences. So many birds waiting to be found there. Must visit there soon. And I love nightjars… Anyway, here is their story:

During a short trip to Oman in December 2016 we visited Muntasar Oasis in central Oman (19°27’11.8″N 54°37’13.9″E) on the 12th. We had a rewarding dusk encounter with a lovely Egyptian Nightjar Caprimulgus aegyptius, hunting and sitting in front of us at Qatbit Oasis. We watched two Mountain Gazelles Gazella gazella cora and one Jerboa sp. when a relatively small and pallid nightjar flew in. It had large and well marked white wing spots and prominent white tail corners, excluding Egyptian Nightjar. At that moment we speculated that it could be a European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. However, European Nightjar is a familiar species for us and that nightjar looked different. The bird was flying and sitting regularly, so we decided to approach the bird with a spotlight. We approached it down to barely two meters and got some photos. At that moment it was obvious that we were not watching a European Nightjar, based on its smaller size, different jizz and pallid colouration. With the available information we had at that moment we supposed that it was a Nubian Nightjar Caprimulgus nubicus as the most probable species. That would be the 8th record for Oman. 

A few days later back home we revisited the issue of the intriguing nightjar. Checking on Internet for other nightjar species from neighbouring countries around Oman we found Sykes’s Nightjar Caprimulgus mahrattensis. That fitted 100% with the bird we photographed, but a far more unexpected species than Nubian Nightjar. We sent the pictures and description to renowned ornithologists from the Middle East to confirm our identification. 

Sykes's Nightjar, Muntasar Oasis, Oman, December 2016. Photo by Albert Burgas.

Sykes’s Nightjar, Muntasar Oasis, Oman, December 2016. Photo by Albert Burgas.

Sykes's Nightjar, Muntasar Oasis, Oman, December 2016. Photo by Albert Burgas.

Sykes’s Nightjar, Muntasar Oasis, Oman, December 2016. Photo by Albert Burgas.

Sykes’s Nightjar breeds in south-east Iran, south Afghanistan, Pakistan and north-west India. It migrates in winter to west, north and central India. There are only four previous records of Sykes’s Nightjar in the Arabian Peninsula, all of them from the UAE and always found between the end of December and February (Oscar Campbell pers. com.). Pending acceptance by Oman Rarities Committee, this is the 1st record of Sykes’s Nightjar for the Sultanate of Oman and the 5th for Arabia.

Some notes on ID by YP:

I am no expert on Sykes’s Nightjar, but this looks good. It is not a Nubian Nightjar – main difference is the throat pattern: Nubian has a well-patterned throat, with a pale moustachial stripe and a whitish throat. Also, Middle Eastern Nubian Nightjars tend to be more heavily marked overall, but this can show very different in photos, depending on the misleading ‘flattening’ effect of spotlighting on photos, and image processing.

'Tamarisk' Nubian Nightjar, Neot Hakikar, Israel, October 2011. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

‘Tamarisk’ Nubian Nightjar, Neot Hakikar, Israel, October 2011. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

Egyptian Nightjar is larger and longer-winged, and lacks the complete rufous neck collar both species above show.

Egyptian Nightjar, Dead Sea, Israel, December 2016. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

Egyptian Nightjar, Dead Sea, Israel, December 2016. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

Egyptian Nightjar, Neot Hakikar, Israel, March 2012. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

Egyptian Nightjar, Neot Hakikar, Israel, March 2012. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

For comparison, here are two Sykes’s Nightjars from Gujarat, India – courtesy of Mike Watson. There seems to be some variation in the extent of black markings on the scapulars between these individuals and the Oman bird.

Sykes's Nightjar, Gujarat, India, February 2015. Photo by Mike Watson.

Sykes’s Nightjar, Gujarat, India, February 2015. Photo by Mike Watson.

Sykes's Nightjar, Gujarat, India, February 2015. Photo by Mike Watson.

Sykes’s Nightjar, Gujarat, India, February 2015. Photo by Mike Watson.

Many thanks to Àlex and Albert for contacting me and sharing their exciting discovery.

Christmas fudge goose

By Yoav Perlman

Geese are fun, aren’t they? The perfect head-scratching activity for dark and cold winter days. In Norfolk, views are typically rubbish, which makes it even more fun. Hybrid geese have been discussed on Birding Frontiers before.

When geese turn up in funny places, things get really interesting. This intriguing goose was found at the spectacular KKL Agamon Hula in Israel on Christmas day by Hamudi Musa Heib, and was later photographed by Dror Galili. Dror kindly allowed me to use his images here. Shai Agmon sent me some more images and shared his field impressions with me. It was an overcast day (even in Israel…) so Dror’s images are rather dark and blue.

Goose sp., Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp., Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

First impression is Lesser White-fronted Goose (LWFG), isn’t it? The bold eyering shouts loud. But then a closer look does show some pointers to other or mixed identities. In images it looks quite a brute, compared to Wigeon. However, people who saw it in the field said that the field impression wasn’t that massive. The neck is thick but rather long. The bill is long and powerful, different from the cute mini-beak of LWFG, to my eyes closer to Eurasian White-fronted Goose (EWFG).

Goose sp. with Eurasian Wigeons, Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp. with Eurasian Wigeons, Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

First, ageing this bird is important – this appears to be a 1cy (1st-winter; it will turn 2cy in five days). Check moult contrast in scapulars and flanks. It is probably moulting out of juvenile plumage.

Goose sp. with Eurasian Wigeon, Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp. with Eurasian Wigeon, Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Some context: 

This is a special goose year in Israel. All geese are rare in Israel. The only regularly occurring species in Israel is Eurasian White-fronted, with single birds seen almost every winter. Agamon Hula is a hotspot for them. This winter Israel is experiencing a goose influx, with several flocks of White-fronts around the country, several flocks of the rare Greylag, and even records of mega rarities – Taiga Bean Goose (5th record) and Lesser White-fronted (7th record). Check this article in Hebrew (sorry), Google Translate will make you chuckle I’m sure. So it is likely that this bird is of wild origin.

In Israel this bird was first broadcast as Lesser White-fronted Goose. Then talk started about hybrid options.  With Eurasian white-fronted Goose? Red-breasted Goose? Egyptian Goose? Ruddy Shelduck? Perhaps wildfowl collections can create unlikely love stories? I don’t know if that’s even possible. So many question marks in one post… So to make some sense I contacted Dave Appleton from the excellent Bird Hybrids. Dave sent me this most detailed reply:

“Firstly I think the reddish colour on the flank feathers is a red herring… I think it is dirt and not a real plumage feature.  I don’t think any hybrid combination would give rise to such a plumage mark and also I don’t think the pattern of it really fits any normal feather patterns – it seems to cross feathers in a weird way, not like a normal plumage feature.  For example in IMG1897 (the top image in this post – YP) the rearmost blotch of reddish brown along the rear flanks seems to cover the outer half of the tip of one feather and the outer ¾ of the base of the feather behind it – like a random spot of dirt rather than a normal plumage pattern.

The other issues would all be explained, I think, if there was (Greater/Eurasian) White-fronted Goose influence – a first-winter would show a dark nail to the bill and have a longer bill than Lesser White-front, it would be large and heavy and I think the head shape and colour are ok too.  So then my question becomes, is it a hybrid between White-fronted Goose and Lesser White-fronted Goose, or could it be just a pure White-fronted Goose?  The features you mention as making it superficially like Lesser White-fronted Goose are the eye-ring and the long primaries.  To me the feathers at the wing-tip look dishevelled – the tertials aren’t lying flat and the primaries seem to be pointing at a slightly odd angle.  I am not sure if it is damaged or has loose feathers, but whatever the cause I am not sure it is safe to judge the relative length of the primaries in this state. 

That leaves only the yellow eye-ring (or more correctly, orbital ring) to potentially indicate Lesser White-fronted Goose origin.  Of course White-fronted Goose can have a slightly yellowish orbital ring, it’s just that its usually so dull and inconspicuous that you don’t notice it.  It does vary though – e.g. the Reeber Wildfowl book says (under the description of adult Greater White-fronted Goose), “Brown iris with a usually inconspicuous orbital ring, which is sometimes yellow (most frequently in breeding males).”  I can’t find them now but I’m sure I’ve seen photos of apparently pure White-fronted Geese with yellow orbital rings that would make a Lesser White-front proud.  Of course your bird appears to be a first-winter, so that may be more unusual in a bird of that age, but I am not sure it is enough on its own to exclude a pure White-fronted Goose.  On the other hand they say that most captive Lesser White-fronts are not pure, having some White-front ancestry (which in my experience rings true – they often seem to have less white on the forehead than wild birds) and I guess the opposite might be true of captive White-fronts.  So if captive origin is likely then perhaps mixed ancestry might be the best way of explaining the yellow eye-ring, but if wild origin is more likely (and if recent events in England are anything to go by it must be a good winter to see White-fronts a bit outside their usual range) then I would tentatively suggest a pure first-winter White-fronted Goose would be the most likely identification.”

Many thanks to Dave for this interesting and eye-opening analysis.

I have some points to discuss though – open to debate:

  1. I think the red colouration on the flanks is genuine feather pattern, rather than red dirt. It seems to be symmetrical on both sides (check two top images).
  2. I agree that wingtip structure is not fully clear in relation to tertials, but the primaries do certainly project beyond tail. It is hard to judge exactly how much, but this is more than I would expect from a EWFG.
  3. I am not sure that the dark bill nail is not a result of the goose digging in the dark peat soil of the Hula Valley.

Would be interesting to hear more opinions on this bird!

Goose sp., Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp., Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp. with Eurasian Wigeon, Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp. with Eurasian Wigeon, Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp. with Eurasian Wigeons, Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp. with Eurasian Wigeons, Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp., Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp., Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp. with Eurasian Wigeons, Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

Goose sp. with Eurasian Wigeons, Agamon Hula, Israel, 25/12/16. Photo by Dror Galili.

I apologize for a certain back-log I have here on BF. I promise to address the grey chat (stejnegeri?) issue soon. I also have some interesting terns in the oven, and should also write about a certain house martin that I hope to see on Thursday when I arrive in Israel for a short visit…

So stay tuned for some more exciting stuff here on Birding Frontiers in 2017. I wish all of our followers and supporters a lovely and exciting 2017!

 

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Holboell’s Red-necked Grebe

by Guillermo Rodríguez

The American/East Asian subspecies of Red-necked Grebe, P g holboelliii, has been observed in the WP with accepted records in the UK (a bird shot in Wester Ross in September 1925 and subsequently identified based on measurements), Spain (two winter records from Galicia in 1984 and 1987, which were identified in the field, although these records will likely be reviewed again in the near future by the Spanish Records Committee), Iceland (at least five), and single accepted records in Sweden and Norway, in addition to several other reports. Since they are quite common as wintering birds along the American Atlantic coast (where, for instance, Pacific Diver is scarce/rare), they should be expected to reach Europe regularly. But do they?

holboellii is known to be larger and darker, and to have more yellow in the bill than the nominate grisegena. According to Pyle (2008), the differences in size are likely to be significant enough to clinch the ID. For example, the wing length is 180-212mm in holboellii versus 153-188mm in grisegena, showing that there is limited size overlap. However, these differences would obviously require in-hand measurements for identification. It’s my understanding that separation of holboellii from grisegena is currently considered to be impossible under field conditions, and the validity of the pattern of yellow in the bill has also been questioned (because a few grisegena show yellow bills similar to holboellii). However, the longest-billed holboellii show impressive harpoon-like bills which, in my opinion, are clearly outside the range of variation of grisegena.

Another identification feature that’s not usually mentioned in the literature is the general body structure; holboellii is considerably more powerful, with a longer neck, a longer and stronger bill and a flatter forehead. The head often looks square rather than rounded (although it’s also important to consider the age-related variation of the head shape, since first-winter birds tend to show rounder heads in general). As a useful comparison, holboellii somewhat resembles Great Crested Grebe. The main problem is that structure is subject to interpretation, and any identification solely based on the jizz is usually disputable. Variability in body shape is also quite extensive, and in particular many American holboellii may look as small and delicate as European grisegena. On the other hand, the largest-billed grisegena are at the same time the biggest individuals, with a more powerful structure than average birds, altogether favouring the holboellii impression.

Still, I do think that the largest and most striking holboellii could be definitively identified in the field if one turns up in Europe. For instance, check out two examples of such extremely large birds here and here.

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Red-necked Grebe ssp. holboellii, first-winter, February 2014. New Jersey. Picture by Sam Galick.

Many first-winter holboellii show a striking pale iris, which forms a contrasting ring around the dark eye that is very obvious with close views. I don’t know the variation in grisegena well (any feedback is welcome!), but my impression is that it isn’t always so obvious; perhaps the iris is on average paler in holboellii?.

The structural differences are easily noticeable even in distant birds at sea:

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Red-necked Grebe ssp. holboellii, December 2015. Massachusetts. Picture by Guillermo Rodríguez.

Sadly not all individuals are so distinctive; for instance the bird below – although it still looks large and long-billed – is probably still consistent with grisegena.

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Red-necked Grebe ssp. holboellii, adult, December 2015. Massachusetts. Picture by Jeremy Coleman.

And actually many holboelli look much smaller, more delicate and round-headed:

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Red-necked Grebe ssp holboellii, December 2005. Massachusetts. Picture by Tom Murray.

As a rough estimate, I would say that on the east coast of the United States the proportion of birds that are 1) markedly large and powerful, 2) intermediate 3) small, grisegena-like is somewhere between 20-40-40(%) and 10-30-60(%). My impression from a winter trip to Korea is that Asian holboellii on average are even more obvious, but at the time I didn’t pay enough attention (see some examples from Japan here).

Some birds, particularly adults, are remarkably dark, especially on the flanks; in addition, the facial dark mask sometimes extends towards the cheek.

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Red-necked Grebe ssp. holboellii, adult, November 2012, Massachusetts. Picture by Christopher N. Ciccone.

A couple of birds from Spain

One obvious problem with using structural features for identification is that they are strongly affected by the posture and activity of the birds. Take a look at this (presumed) grisegena from northern Spain photographed on two different days. I have the impression that birds at sea tend to look more like holboellii than birds on calmer waters, such as estuaries, where they tend to look more like grisegena. Presumably this is because the latter are more relaxed, but it’s difficult to say.

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Red-necked Grebe ssp grisegena, February 2016. Cantabria, N Spain. Picture by Lander Zurikarai.

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Red-necked Grebe ssp grisegena, February 2016. Cantabria, N Spain. Picture by Jesus Menéndez.

The amount of yellow on the bill of this bird is similar to that shown on all the holboellii in previous photos, extending over the entire lower mandible and reaching the upper mandible up to the nostrils.

In March 2015, an interesting Red-necked Grebe was found in Galicia, northwest Spain. The bird was remarkably dark on flanks and cheek and presented a substantially long neck, strong structure, and powerful bill, which accentuated its long-headed impression. This bird was probably within the size range of grisegena (at least it wasn’t one of the obvious and “identifiable” holboellii) and the reduced yellow in the bill was certainly against it being holboellii, but it still gave a Nearctic impression.

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Red-necked Grebe, first winter, March 2015. Galicia, N Spain. Picture by Jose Luis Lorenzo Garcia “Colon”.

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.

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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.