Tag Archives: Lesser Sand-plover

Lesser Sand-plover

Israeli sand-plover resolved

I hope Martin forgives me for turning this into my personal blog. But this bird stirred a fascinating discussion among some top birders, and deserves one last post.

Lesser Sand-plover
Lesser Sand-plover

 So after lots of thinking and reading and discussing, the concensus on this bird now is that it’s a good candidate for atrifrons. This happened after seeing more images of the bird, better illustrating its petite size, and understanding that wing pattern and bill structure are highly variable in both species, and identification shouldn’t be based on these features only. This bird showed a wing pattern normally associated with greater (bulging white wingbar on inner primaries), as mentioned in literature. Well, not anymore. 

Also, this bird showed a bill structure similar to the bird from Kenya in my previous post – long and rather thin, with slightly bulbous lower mandible. Again, according to literature this is not very good for lesser, but better for greater.

So what do we have on this bird?

1. Timing of moult – lesser moults later than greater, which is a good pointer for lesser – at least in Israel a bird in summer plumage in late July or August should be lesser. I know little about how eastern leschenaulti moult.

2. General size and structure – small. Not the most ‘delicate’ atrifrons in the world though.

3. Leg colour – basically dark (though often hard to tell in the field).

4. Head pattern – massive black mask.

5. Dull grey mantle. Greater normally has brighter rufouns mantle, but surely this is affected by wear?

At least my understanding from recent days is that some features widely mentioned as distinguishing between greater and lesser are invalid or at least very variable, such as wing pattern and bill structure. More work is needed on separation of columbinus and western atrifrons, that appear to be very close to each other.

And a couple of lessons for me – 1) always be extra cautious about identifying birds from images without seeing them and 2) never be definitive about such difficult taxa; always use indefinite terms such as ‘looks like’, ‘good candidate’ etc.

I want to thank all the people who contributed to this discussion, in Israel and overseas.

Always learning!

columbinus Greater Sand-plover

Tricky Greater Sand-plover

Yesterday, Israeli birder Irad Solnik had a summer-plumaged sand-plover in a small lagoon near Bet Yanay, on the Mediterranean coast. This immediately got the alarm bells ringing, as Greater Sand-plover, which is common in Israel, moults very early and now is already in full winter plumage, while Lesser and Mongolian Sand-plovers moult much later and still are in summer plumage now (see this bird from Scotland a couple of weeks ago).

Surprisingly, both Lesser and Mongolian Sand-plovers are great rarities in Israel (they are common winter visitors to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea coast of Egypt), so I asked Irad to try and get some images of the bird. He returned to the site around midday and got these excellent shots, in very contrasting light.

columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Bet Yanay, Israel, 26/7/13

It took me some time until I got to see the images on a computer screen (never try to identify birds on your mobile screen!) but eventually, after circulating the images among some top Israeli birders, we decided it was a small columbinus Greater Sand-plover. Thank god – my wife would have killed me (again) if I disappeared this morning to twitch a Mongolian Plover.

columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Bet Yanay, Israel, 26/7/13

columbinus is the smallest and most delicate race of Greater Sand-plover, breeding in the Middle East (steppes of Turkey, Syrian and N Jordan) and W Asia, and the commonest race in Israel. The much larger and more massive crassirostris is rare in Israel. Most columbinus are still easy to identify, but some, like this small (female?) sand-plover can be quite tricky.

The black forehead and what looked like black legs, combined with summer plumage in late July were misleading. This is how adult columbinus should look like this time of year – this image was taken by myself on Wednesday – green legs!

columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 24/7/13

But what eventually gave this bird away as columbinus were:

  • Structure – though rather small (compare with Dunlin), this is still a powerful bird, not compact and delicate like lessers. Note especially the attenuated rear – lesser have much less ‘body’ behind the legs, and it seems that most of their mass is in front of the legs.
columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Bet Yanay, Israel, 26/7/13

  • Bill structure – the bill is long and quite thin. Lessers have a short and stout bill, and together with a rounded head give a cute impression. These in-hand images of Lesser Sand-plover were taken while ringing in Kenya in 2010 with A-Rocha Kenya.

Lesser (left) and Greater (right) Sand-plovers, Mida Creek, Kenya, December 2010

Lesser Sand-plover

Lesser Sand-plover, Mida Creek, Kenya, December 2010

  • Leg structure – long tibia. Most lessers have a shorter tibia, but note that southernmost atrifrons lessers have pretty long legs and are frustratingly similar to columbinus – they overlap in almost every biometric parameter.
Lesser Sand-plover in winter plumage

Lesser Sand-plover in winter plumage, Mida Creek, Kenya 2010

About leg colour – this feature must be used with great caution. Like most shorebirds, sand-plovers too get their legs covered in mud, sand, algae etc., and often true leg colour is impossible to tell, just like the Israeli bird.

And a few words on moult – in most long-distance migrants moult patterns are rather uniform and well defined. But there are always exceptions to the rule, like this bird. In this case, moult is a good indicative feature, not a clincher.

Thumbs up to Irad for noticing this interesting bird. BTW Irad is very hot lately – he found the first of the two Yellow-billed Storks present now in Israel. Many thanks to Irad for allowing me to use his photos.