Saturday, February 19, 2011

*****COMMON SNIPE*****

A couple of days ago I got a photo of a pale Snipe found by Bruce Mactavish.He of course was suspicious, as we all were but was not able to get the supporting evidence needed for an ID. It turned out to be the bird documented below as a Common Snipe.

I've had an interest in the Gallinago Snipe complex for a couple of years. Earlier this winter I had seen a Snipe that I was suspicious of being a Common, but I never had a camera with me at the time, so couldn't document any critical details.

Separating Wilson's and Common Snipe is no easy task. At this point I guess it's proper to say the final identification of this bird is pending, but I'm about 99.9% sure. We're just awaiting reply from some European birders who are familiar with the species. Basically it's on my list. It's ticked, I'm counting it. It's a Common Snipe and it will take a large body of contradicting evidence to prove otherwise at this point.

Update experts have weighed in- this is a Common Snipe!!!

When I mentioned continental mega in my previous post it really does accurately describe the status of this bird. It's currently listed as an ABA code 4 species but is essentially unknown from the vast majority of North America. It is recorded regularly from the islands off Alaska and perhaps the mainland as well. I believe it is known to breed in parts of Alaska in small numbers. Aside from that I think there is maybe a record for California, maybe one from British Columbia and that's it. There is an old record from Labrador during the massive Northern Lapwing invasion of 1927, when Jack Snipe was also collected from the same location. This bird represents the first modern day record for eastern North America and is perhaps the first record away from the Pacific Coast.

This record should not be terribly surprising to anyone who has followed my blog or the Newfoundland bird list recently. There was a huge cold weather movement of birds in the UK in the late fall and early winter. This is perhaps what brought us about a dozen Northern Lapwings, Common Chaffinch, unusual numbers of Common Teal (about 3X average) and more Common Gulls than usual. Right, almost forgot and 3 Redwings!!All of the afore mentioned birds were moving in big numbers out of Britain to points further south at that time and it looks like some decided to fly a little further east.

As i said,identifying a Common Snipe is no easy task. It was really only made possible this time because the bird is ina perfect area to be photographed. It is feeding in a wet area on the side of the road in a small community,together with a Wilson's Snipe. If you are incredibly patient you can sit in your car on the opposite side of the road and photograph it. The good thing about Snipe is they like to preen and they like to stretch their wings. Over 3.5 hours yesterday both the Common and Wilson's Snipe did some preening and stretching, which allowed me to capture critical field marks.

It seems that separation of these species is still in its infancy and maybe there is more to be learned.However,the Europeans have the jump on us and have developed a list of useful feature for separating the two. The following is my account of what I saw, my impressions and my reasoning for claiming this bird as a Common Snipe. All photographs were taken by me unless stated otherwise.

Compared to the Wilson's Snipe with which it was associating, the Common was much paler,overall, seemingly lacking the contrasting appearance shown by Wilson's. When seeing the two together or even the Common on it's own, it appears strikingly buff, especially on the breast and on the upper portion of the flanks. When compared directly with the Wilson's Snipe the Common appeared to be much more patterned overall, with more rufous internal markings in most feather groups but particularly the scapulars and tertials. Other general features noted were an apparently longer bill and tail. Both of these features were actually quite noticeable at times. As well, the lines across the back and the edges of the scapulars were very thick and chunky and much buffier than I'm used to seeing in Wilson's Snipe and were obviously different that the one Wilson's Snipe present in the area. Crucial field marks noted and photographed, included the following.

Axillaries and under wing coverts- the axillaries were mostly white with relatively thin white bars,that seemed almost washed out. In comparasion to Wilson's which always has at least as much black as white in the axillaries and looks very dark. The median and greater underwing coverts appear to be mostly white, which seems to be impossible for Wilson's Snipe based on current knowledge, which always shows extensive black barring in these areas creating a much darker underwing.

Secondary tips- easily compared when the birds stretched their wings side by side. The white tips were barely visible on the secondaries of the Wilson's,while they appeared thick and very obvious on the Common, creating the impression of a thick white line.

Tail- Excellent tail shots were obtained by Paul Linegar, showing the spread tail.It shows very well the characteristic outer tail feather pattern of Common Snipe, being much less barred than Wilson's. The COSN had only a singe bar on the outer portion of the tail feather, then a thick white bar followed by a long thick black area. Wilson's Snipe typically has a completely barred out tail feather. As well, you can see that the tips of the tail feathers are rather rounded, which should be diagnostic for Common Snipe.It's somewhat difficult to count the tail feathers, but based on the spread tail shot I count 12. There should be a couple more tucked away, unseen. Wilson's Snipe almost always have 16 tail feathers, which Common usually have 14, but may occasionally have 16 or 18.

Photographic Evidence:

Notice the overall buffy coloration of this bird compared with the Wilson's Snipe below. The scapulars and wing coverts appear much paler due to more and thicker internal markings. Notice the thicker and buffier lines across the back and the scapular edges. Also evident is the relative lack and less apparent flank streaking shown by the Common Snipe above. The streaking almost looks washed out and not as dense.

The photos are not quite to scale, the birds were actually pretty much the same size. Occasionally the COSN seemed a little large to me. The thicker buffier scapular edges are apparent, as well the over all more contrasty and darker tones of Wilson's. Also a hint of the longer tail shown by Common.

Note the darker based tertials shown by Wilson, with very small pale transverse bars.By contrast COSN showing as much rufous barring as black, if not more and appearing much brighter and more well patterned.

Photos displaying axxilary and under wing covert pattern:

Note: axillaries are mainly white with thin, well separated, black bars. Notice the typical WISN axillary pattern of tightly packed, thick black bars visible in the comparison shot. The underwing coverts of the COSN show a great deal of white, especially in the median and greater underwing coverts. This is beyond what is possible for a WISN, which is fully barred black in these areas and is not known to be variable. See the photo below for typical WISN underwing coverts.

Secondary Tips

Note the COSN in front with the much thicker white secondary tips. It is difficult to see any white in the secondary tips of the WISN in the back, which is typical.

Tail and outer tail feather.

Outer tail feather with just a single bar towards the tip. Compare to the photo below showing a typical WISN outer tail feather which is much more barred over the entire length of the feather.

Photo- Paul Linegar

Web Photo

As stated above, if accepted this would constitute the first record of Common Snipe for insular Newfoundland, the first record away from the Pacific coast and possibly just the 2nd or third outside Alaska.


  1. Hi Dave I assume this was the bird BruceMcTavish found there seems to be no mention that he found it on this post which I find a bit strange.

  2. Hey,

    Bruce did find it. He sent the photo out along just as a pale Snipe. He was intending on going back in a few days when he could due to work committments. Paul Linegar and I have more time so we went right away. I've been studying the complex and was suspicious. I got there and got the confirming photos and we all worked through the whole process of identifying the bird. There was some good team work on this one. I'm not out to steal anyones thunder..;)

  3. I`ve changed the intro to denote that this bird was in fact found by Bruce. he deserves the credit for getting me on this thing. I did then spend hours photographing and researching to come up with the ID. Paul Linegar was also insstrumental in the process. All in all a team effort to nail down a tough to identify bird!

  4. Hi Dave, I tried to open some of your photos, starting with the first one, but couldn't do so because of a warning re
    Since it has happened to me on my site before and on another site that I looked at this morning, I found this on Google;

  5. Dave, Bruce et al.,

    A truly fine piece of intuition and awareness from all you guys to document such a tough bird. The photos are really educational, and again goes to show that Newfoundland is one of the only places to study old world and new world species together in a vagrancy context.

    I'd love to be able to link to your site from my blog if that's cool with you, since I have looked at these from a UK perspective for some time.

    Good birding,

    Julian Hough
    CT, USA

  6. Congratulations, you guys, on a superb piece of ornithological detective work. Snipe are tough but it looks like you nailed this, with plenty of detailed documentation for an ironclad ID on this bird. Yet another amazing record for Newfoundland.

  7. Hey JUlian, feel free to link. Also be sure to echkl bakc to see Jack Snipe photos!! Tomorrow I'm going for a three species Snipe day. How often is that possible anywhere in North America. Just another super rarity ina rarity filled winter. To quote Bruce Mactavish, "2011, the winter that never stops giving, what's next??"

  8. Great perseverence and deduction there, David. I've had similar experiences in reverse finding putative delicata in the UK; unlike you though, while I got photos of both candidates I have found, on neither occasion did I get the clinching underwing or tail shots.