Tag Archives: juvenile

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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

First year Hudsonian Dunlin

By Guillermo Rodríguez

Hudsonian Dunlin (C a hudsonia) records have been claimed several times in the UK & other countries in Europe, usually adults in mostly summer plumage in late spring and summer, when the pale head and bright back of Hudsonian is quite different from European birds (but, on the other hand, is difficult to separate from several Pacific taxa). However, Hudsonian Dunlin also differs from Dunlins that occur regularly in Europe (alpina/schinzii/arctica) in juvenile/first-winter plumage, when the likelihood of a vagrant is perhaps higher. Dunlins arrive in good numbers to the east coast of the United States in late September, only slightly later than Baird’s Sandpiper and American Golden Plover.

After careful study of a few hundred first-winter birds, I think some of the features typically shown by Hudsonian are relatively rare in European birds, and their combination on a prototypical individual might indicate a nearctic origin.

Moult: probably the most obvious and eye-catching difference at first glance (in September/early October) is that the birds arrive from the breeding grounds already in a remarkably advanced moult. Most birds have moulted head, breast, and most of the back feathers; the belly, rump and wing coverts are usually moulted slightly later. For instance, all 9 first-year birds seen in Massachusetts on September 24th were in moulted plumage; only one out of 76 was still in mainly juvenile plumage on October 1st; and only 3 out of 54 seen on October 8th showed partially (but still fairly advanced) juvenile plumage. Thus, the proportion of birds arriving with retained juvenile plumage may be well below 5%. At this time of year, most first-year Dunlins in Europe have some replaced scapulars, but usually not most of them and rarely if ever show a complete winter plumage overall (ie also including head, mantle and breast). Some Hudsonian Dunlins leave some back and rump feathers unmoulted until the late autumn and winter, showing a characteristic line of conspicuous rufous-fringed scapulars contrasting with the moulted greyer feathers, reminding in some way first-year Western Sandpiper.

Bill shape: Hudsonian Dunlins on the East Coast present limited variability in bill shape and length, at least compared to Dunlin taxa in other parts of the world. Most Hudsonians have a long bill, which curves down at the end, somewhat similar to Curlew Sandpiper. Some birds also show a sort of ‘drop’ at the bill tip. Even in the shortest-billed birds the bill shape is characteristic, and considerably different from the majority of Dunlins in Europe (although, obviously, European birds sometimes show similar bills).

Facial pattern: many Hudsonians present a characteristic facial expression: the brow is usually broad, and ends sharply just beyond the eye; in some birds there is a conspicuous pale area in front of the eye. The cap and nape are roughly concolorous, and thus more contrasting with the supercilium. In European Dunlins, the nape tends to be paler and so the supercilium seems to “merge” with it, contrasting with a slightly darker cap. As a useful comparison, these differences are reminiscent of the differences in facial pattern between juvenile Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers (with Hudsonian being more similar to Western).

Breast and flanks patterning: this feature has been considered as diagnostic in the past. Once they have moulted into winter plumage (but generally not in juvenile plumage!), around 70% of birds present sparse short streaks on the flanks of the underparts, beginning at the breast and sometimes reaching as far as the undertail. In most of these birds, the dirty grey patch on the breast partially extends towards the belly along the flanks. In most European birds, the underparts are neatly white, but some exceptional birds might show a similar streaked pattern to Hudsonian.

Some examples illustrating the variability of first year Hudsonian Dunlins.

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Hudsonian Dunlin, first year, September 21, 2016. Massachusetts. Guillermo Rodríguez.

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Hudsonian Dunlin, first year, September 24, 2016. Massachusetts. Guillermo Rodríguez.

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Hudsonian Dunlin, first year, October 8, 2016. Massachusetts. Guillermo Rodríguez.

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Hudsonian Dunlin, first year, October 8, 2016. Massachusetts. Guillermo Rodríguez.

Even in the shortest-billed individuals the bill drops down at the tip. Note also the characteristic pattern of the supercilium.

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Hudsonian Dunlin, first year, October 8, 2016. Massachusetts. Guillermo Rodríguez.

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Hudsonian Dunlin, first year, October 8, 2016. Massachusetts. Guillermo Rodríguez.

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Hudsonian Dunlin, first year, October 8, 2016. Massachusetts. Guillermo Rodríguez.

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Hudsonian Dunlins, October 8, 2016. Massachusetts. Guillermo Rodríguez.

Note the similar bill shape and size in most individuals. Variability is relatively limited in the East Coast!

For comparison, look at this typical Dunlin from N Spain, still in mainly juvenile plumage in September:

european_dunlin_1

Dunlin, first year, Galicia, N Spain, September 15. Photographer: Pablo Gutierrez.

and a slightly more advanced bird (October), with extensive replacement on mantle and scapulars but still retaining juvenile head and breast feathers.

european_dunlin_2

Dunlin, first year, Galicia, N Spain, October 3. Photographer: Pablo Gutierrez.

Finally, check out this individual from the Canary Islands, identified as a (potential) Hudsonian on grounds of the flank streaking. The Spanish RC studied and eventually rejected this record. I think the bill does not look particularly good and the breast is too neat for Hudsonian, but undoubtedly a difficult bird!