Tag Archives: Swinhoe’s Snipe

Swinhoe's Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

Swinhoe’s Snipe identification

By Yoav Perlman

Swinhoe’s Snipe and Pin-tailed Snipe are a notoriously difficult species-pair. In fact they might be the only birds in the WP that even in perfect field conditions cannot be identified. In this post I will try to spotlight some potential ID features. Jari Laitasalo, an intrepid Finnish birder and ringer, has kindly allowed me to publish these images of a Swinhoe’s Snipe he took in May 2016 at Baikal Bird Ringing Station on the shores of Lake Baikal in eastern Russia. I will highlight here what little is known about their field identification (in fact I just need an excuse to show here Jari’s perfect images).

WP status

Both species breed right in the northeastern corner of the WP, in the northern Urals. In this context both are potential vagrants to the UK and western Europe. If I am not mistaken there are a few UK reports of ‘dark-underwing no trailing edge’ snipes – Martin once told me about one he had on Shetland some years ago but he couldn’t nail it. Swinhoe’s Snipe was recorded only once in the less extreme parts of the WP – a displaying male was in southeastern Finland in June – July 2008. It was identified by its unique display song, and during its display flights it did fan the tail and the characteristic outer tail feathers were seen well. Pin-tailed Snipe has been recorded twice in Italy (Sicily) – if I am not mistaken the only European records away from Urals. In the Middle East it is more frequent. In Israel it is a very rare but regular autumn visitor, just about annual in recent years, with 10 records up to late 2015. The situation in Israel is slightly awkward: three of these ten records involved ringed birds, and they were all Pin-tails (see some images below). All other seven records could not be separated positively from Swinhoe’s in the field. Until there is further evidence about how to identify them in the field, they are regarded by IRDC as Pin-tailed ‘by default’. Similarly, in eastern Arabia and Persian Gulf Pin-tailed is also a rare but regular visitor. If I am not mistaken there are also a couple of records of Pin-tailed Snipe in Sinai, Egypt. I must say that from the images I found online of Middle Eastern birds that were not trapped, the possibility that these were Swinhoe’s Snipe could not be eliminated.

Some clues towards identification

When you find a ‘dark underwing no trailing edge’ snipe in the WP, try to catch it! Please use a mistnet and not a gun as happened with the first Pin-tailed Snipe for Sicily that was shot by hunters (if I am not mistaken – couldn’t find anything on it online). In the hand first check the outer tail feathers. The outer tail feathers of Swinhoe’s Snipe are nice and broad, gradually broadening from the outermost pair inwards:

Swinhoe's Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

Swinhoe’s Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

The outer tail feathers of Pin-tailed Snipe are very different – all outer tail feathers (normally 8 pairs but varies between 6 and 9 pairs) are of equal width, about 1.5 – 2 mm. This is a scan of a slide (over-saturated, sorry) I took of the 2nd Pin-tailed Snipe for Israel I took in November 1998:

Pin-tailed Snipe, Kfar Ruppin, Israel, November 1998

Pin-tailed Snipe, Kfar Ruppin, Israel, November 1998

And here’s another example, of a bird ringed at Tsora, Israel by Yosef Kiat:

Pin-tailed Snipe, Tsora, Israel, November 2011 (Yosef Kiat). Pins indeed.

Pin-tailed Snipe, Tsora, Israel, November 2011 (Yosef Kiat). Pins indeed.

But what to do with birds in the field? It may be possible that in exceptional images of a landing or preening bird, the shape of the outer feathers can be identified. However I have not had success with this yet. Andrea Corso told me that he found a difference in the tail shape in flight: Pin-tailed Snipe has a more diamond-shaped tail (similar to Raven), as a result of the short pin-feathers at the base of the tail. Swinhoe’s should have a more square- or gently rounded-shaped tail. I have tried to check this on images online but there are very few rear flight shots, and anyway in most it is impossible to say whether they were identified correctly. This is how Jari’s Swinhoe’s  looks like in a view similar to flight – square tailed?

Swinhoe's Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

Swinhoe’s Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

And Yosef’s pin-tailed in a similar view, when those pin-feathers are clustered: raven-shaped?

Pin-tailed Snipe, Tsora, Israel, November 2011 (Yosef Kiat). Check also the scapulars - inner webs buff, outer webs white.

Pin-tailed Snipe, Tsora, Israel, November 2011 (Yosef Kiat). Check also the scapulars – inner webs buff, outer webs white.

This is something that is certainly worth looking into, especially in birds of known identity. In general, I find Pin-tailed to be less-patterned above, with narrower fringes to scapulars and mantle braces compared to more boldly patterned Swinhoe’s. However this must be very variable, depending on wear and age.

Some more images of Jari’s Swinhoe’s:

Swinhoe's Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

Swinhoe’s Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

Swinhoe's Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo). Check the scapulars - inner and outer webs both buff toned.

Swinhoe’s Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo). Check the scapulars – inner and outer webs both buff toned.

Swinhoe's Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

Swinhoe’s Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

Swinhoe's Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

Swinhoe’s Snipe, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

Vocalisations

Both species are rather silent, much less vocal than Common Snipe. Paul Leader and Geoff Carey discussed the possible differences in length in their excellent BB article, but they admitted that even to an experienced ear telling them apart is not straightforward. They suggested that Swinhoe’s is even more mute than Pin-tailed. Both species give soft take-off calls, though it is possible that calls of Pin-tailed are higher-pitched and clearer, while Swinhoe’s gives a lower-pitched, hoarser call. The bottom line is that it is worth sound-recording suspicious snipes, though it is not easy (I have tried several times but if the snipe did call it was very faint).

If you are lucky enough to be in an area where they breed and encounter a displaying bird, then display songs are sufficiently different. The song of Swinhoe’s is harsher and contains more ‘rrr’ notes, while Pin-tailed contains softer, more nasal notes. Check this educational post by Magnus Hellström.

What else?

Not much at the moment. Studying a large sample of birds in the hand in Hong Kong, Leader and Carey found no consistent differences between the two species other than outer tail feathers and perhaps vocalisations. They demonstrated that both species show considerable morphological variation in almost all features. Previous publications discussed features such as bill length, tail projection, overall patterns and pattern of scapulars, loral stripe and a few others. There might be something in the pattern on the scapulars: in Swinhoe’s, a higher proportion of individuals showed same-coloured outer and inner webs, while in Pin-tailed more individuals had white outer webs and buff inner webs. Check the images of the individuals above – in these individuals here this works but this is a tiny sample size and it is really about percentages of birds and does not apply to a single bird. And it would be very difficult to judge this on worn birds in the field, as WP vagrants would probably be.

This is a bird I photographed in November 2013 – hard to tell what it is. So frustrating.

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe's) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, November 2013. This bird was silent. Scapular pattern? Hard to say on this worn bird.

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013. This bird was silent. Scapular pattern? Hard to say on this worn bird.

Lior Kislev has kindly allowed me to use his flight shots of this same individual. Not easy to tell what the tail shape is. In some it looks more pointed and narrow, in others it looks more rounded and fuller.

 

Nice wing pattern:

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

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Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

And here it does look more pointed with a distinct ‘bulge’ at the base of the tail: pins?

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

Can I see pins here when its landing? BTW there is a Spotted Crake in this image too…

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev)

Pin-tailed (or Swinhoe’s) Snipe, Maagan Michael, Israel, October 2013 (Lior Kislev).

Some more information about Baikal Bird Ringing Station

Capture

This exciting ringing project started in 2012. If I am not mistaken they ring there only in Spring. Check their blog! They catch there mouthwatering Siberian species such as this stunner:

Siberian Blue Robin, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

Siberian Blue Robin, eastern Russia, May 2016 (Jari Laitasalo)

You can find more great images Jari took there this year on his Facebook page, and other images from previous years in his Tarsiger gallery. Many thanks to Jari, Lior and Yosef for allowing me to use their images.

Pintail / Swinhoe's Snipe

Swintail or Pinhoe’s?

On Thursday October 10th, two of my mates Eyal Shochat and Yaron Charka found this exciting Snipe at Ma’agan Michael on the Mediterranean Coast of Israel.

Pintail / Swinhoe's Snipe

Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

The bird showed very well to me on Sunday. Very easy to separate from the many Common Snipes in the same muddy pool by chunky, full-bodied structure (almost like a small Woodcock or Great Snipe), rounded head, ‘open’ head pattern (very thin loral stripe), heavily barred underparts, and most important – the pattern of mantle, scapulars and tertials: faint central mantle stripes, with no lateral mantle stripes. Scaps have a symetric anchor pattern, with even-width fringes on both sides of feather, compared to common that has much more white or buff on the outer web.

Scapular pattern, Pin-tailed / Swinhoe's Snipe, Ma'agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

Scapular pattern, Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

This individual has a longish tail, on the long end of the spectrum for pin-tailed. Normally they have a very stubby tail, hardly protruding beyond the tertial tips. It had a unique behavious, in fact closer to a rail or crake – escaping on foot into the reeds when alarmed, rather than crouching down or flying away as Common Snipes do.

Pin-tailed / Swinhoe's Snipe, Ma'agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

Separating Pin-tailed Snipe from Swinhoe’s Snipe is practically impossible in the field (i.e. the excellent article by Leader and Carey (2003) in British Birds ). Both species share almost all features, incuding size and structure, overall tones, bill length etc. The only way known today to separate them is by the shape and structure of the thin outer tail feathers, impossible to see in the field in normal conditions. Also call might be useful but more research is needed on this topic so at the moment also calls don’t help. And anyway, compared to Common Snipe that normally gives a harsh ‘queck’ when flushed, Pin-tailed and Swinhoe’s are most often silent.

Pin-tailed Snipe, Kfar Ruppin, Israel, November 1998

Pin-tailed Snipe, Kfar Ruppin, Israel, November 1998

There are three positive records of Pin-tailed Snipe in Israel – all three ringed – the first in 1984 by Hadoram et al. at Eilat, the second was found by Barak Granit and Rami Lindroos in November 1998 at Kfar Ruppin and I ringed it a couple of days later, and the last one was ringed by Yosef Kiat in November 2011 in Tsor’a. Apart for these records of Pin-tailed Snipe, another 6-7 Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s were seen in the field (mainly in the Bet Shean Valley) but swinhoe’s could not be safely excluded, though by default I’d guess they were all pintails.

So what is this bird? This bird is rather large and heavy, with a long heavy bill and thick legs, all features associated with swinhoe’s in older literature, but this means nothing apparently. This bird was silent. Several guys (including myself) tried to get a shot of the open tail when it was preening but impossible to see the shape of the unique outer tail feathers.

Unbelievable that this species-pair cannot be separated in the field. I hope someone comes up with something new soon.

The tiny, reedy pond the snipe was in was just superb. I had there 3 Spotted Crakes, 5 Water Rails, 8 Citrine Wagtails, Moustached and Savi’s Warblers and tons of other birds (Sedge Warblers, Bluethroats etc.). A juvenile Eurasian Sparrowhawk missed a taste of exotic Asia and took a Common Snipe that was feeding just few meters away from the pintailed…

Citrine Wagtail, Ma'agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13.

Citrine Wagtail, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk on Common Snipe, Ma'agan Michael, 13/10/13.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk on Common Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, 13/10/13.