Saturday 14 May 2016

Two Swinhoe's Snipe

Continuing with catch-up posts for good spring birds, here are a few shots of two Swinhoe's Snipe.

April is the month to try for the tricky migrant snipe species. Swinhoe's, Latham's and occasionally Pintail pass through Kansai at this time but finding suitable habitat is crucial if hoping to find them. Generally speaking if you can find suitable habitat, such as that in the images below, you'll have an excellent chance of finding migrant snipe providing you can visit regularly through the peak period. Of course it's possible to find them in wetter locations favoured by Common Snipe too but in the Kyoto area my local rice fields haven't been flooded when snipe are on the move. This means Common Snipe, which are almost always found in association with water, are more often on river edges, ponds or in concrete-sided drainage ditches while the April passage species are quite happy in drier locations. A major problem is habitat availability; small habitats can change markedly from year to year depending on when levee sides were last trimmed or on how overgrown any fallow fields have become. Few spots in my area are good in consecutive years.

Even though the Tsu / Matsusaka area is only a three-hour drive from Kyoto the rice paddies are already filling with water when when the Kyoto fields are bone dry, before they've even been prepared for flooding. Once the fields are flooded Common Snipe and the migrant species can then all be found in the same habitat. However the tricky trio still tend to opt for slightly different, drier
habitat if it's available. The field favoured by the two Swinhoe's featured here was the only one of its type I came across and as expected I only found Common Snipe on the wet fields or mud-fringed ponds along with other waders. I didn't search levee sides as it tends to be very time consuming and my time is limited when I visit Mie.

Even though these birds were on an ideal field with typically shortish, patchy cover they were very difficult to see well. They spent a lot of time sleeping and could easily have been overlooked altogether but even when active they were masters of staying hidden moving deliberately through the the the low vegetation making frequent pauses to look around. Even small passerines, and there were many, flying this way and that about the field would cause the two Snipe to crouch nervously for a moment. I must easily have spent six hours watching them over the two days and was still unable to get any good shots of them.

Swinhoe's and Pintail are often said to be inseparable in the field without seeing the outer tail feathers. Nevertheless some individuals really do look the part, either one or the other, and if all the boxes are ticked, seeing those tail feathers is more a confirmation rather than a necessity. Unfortunately there are plenty of confusing birds where it seems only the tail feathers will settle the issue satisfactorily.

To my eye one of these two snipe looked a dead cert for Swinhoe's from the word go but the other had me thinking along Pintail lines for longer than I'd care to admit. I found this other bird very confusing and my opinion swung back and forth from "it certainly looks like a Pintail" to "surely it can't be a Pintail" depending on which of the mixed signals I was receiving at the time.  After eventually seeing the tail feathers while it was preening in the evening of first day it suddenly looked far more Swinhoe-ish but it's always easy to be wise after the fact.

This was to my eye a fairly obvious Swinhoe's: a bulky snipe with this typical big block of a head balanced at the other end by a longish tail projection showing a prominent orange patch. The saddle is relatively pale because of the very broad scapular fringes and paler, less rusty internal markings in the upper scapulars and quite dense creamy spotting on the mantle. The lower scapulars had rustier internal markings but the same very broad creamy fringes. This pale saddle doesn't contrast with the coverts panel despite the it being heavily spotted creamy-white and overall paler than expected from either Pintail or Latham's which typically both show a far more noticeable contrast. The coverts in turn blend seamlessly into the flank barring. Thus the overall impression is rather washed-out and uniformly pale bird by snipe standards; in other words remarkably unremarkable.

The other (more Pintail-like) bird was marginally smaller and looked significantly more contrasty because of narrower pale fringes and darker upper scapulars with fewer internal markings. The saddle was often the only visible part of either snipe moving through the low vegetation, this bird was relatively easy to locate with the naked eye whereas the other bird was very difficult to pick out in the mostly light coloured vegetation. The tail projection often looked shorter but how much of that was due to my expectation? In this shot the tail actually looks longish, good for Swinhoe's, but it stands out less against the more 'colourful' upperparts compared to paler birds - where the tail often seems to be the only splash of colour on an otherwise drab appearance. The tail length relative to the tertials changes markedly depending on stance and actions with all snipe and it's necessary to follow a bird closely to get a true idea of the proportions, just one reason why judging snipe from photographs is fraught with pitfalls.

The Pintail wannabe again.

Both birds: the pale and obvious Swinhoe's right with the darker more Pintail-like bird left.

The saddle of the 'obvious' Swinhoe's blended in with the surroundings whereas the darker, more contrasty bird was always easier to pick out when scanning the field. 
A stand-out Swinhoe's is generally pale and shows very little plumage contrast.

Once found it was easy to keep tabs on but easy to miss if randomly scanning a field. 

Back to the darker bird: the spread wing showing narrow white tips to the secondaries. As with Pintail this can be surprisingly easy to see on a rising snipe but is a far cry from the bold trailing edge of Common. 

A hint of the heavily marked underwing.

The 'obvious' Swinhoe's: I know it's mostly obscured but the lack of saddle / coverts contrast still comes through. Notice how prominent the tail and its orange patch are here. Also the mantle is finely but heavily spotted creamy-white and the scapulars have bold wrap around fringes with less bright rusty internal markings. Compare those features to the other bird below.

It's later in the day now, a high ISO was required and there is generally a warmer feel to this image but the fringes of the inner webs to the scapulars are narrower and often less complete thus creating the darker-saddled appearance. Warmer light notwithstanding the internal scapular markings are rustier, this is particularly true of the upper row. The tail looks much shorter with this compact stance compared to the stretching bird above.
The two in flight.

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