Pintail Snipe: ID for a WP vagrant

SpießbekassineThe genus Gallinago provides observers with difficulties in field identification, chiefly because of the rather similar general plumage patterns of snipes and their concealed lifestyle. Most views are of flushed birds flying away from the observer. Difficulties generally arise between large-looking Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) and Great Snipe (Gallinago media) but emphasis on these two species should not preclude the possibility of other Palearctic snipes, especially the Pintail Snipe (Gallinago stenura), occurring as vagrants in western Europe. The inclusion of the Pintail Snipe in a popular European field guide has attracted the attention of observers to the species, but the brief description given there is of little use in the field. The small Jacksnipe (Lymnocryptes minimus) should not be discussed here, as it looks different due to the short beak and acts significantly different and also differs greatly when flushed from a Gallinago snipe.

The Pintail Snipe breeds widely across Siberia, from the western foothills of the Urals east to Anadyrland. Field identification on the ground is not easy as the distinctions between the Snipe and the Pintail Snipe on the ground are not so obvious as in flight. If the two species are seen together, however, the Pintail Snipe can be picked out by the buff stripes along the scapulars being narrower and paler, with the areas between them looking browner and more vermiculated, giving a less contrasting appearance to the upperside. These narrower stripes can appear as separate pale lines, rather than as continuous stripes.

There are a few helpful plumage features to overcome the challenge of identification. The majority of the plumage color of the Pintail Snipe consists of a few shades of brown. At first glance through the spotting scope at a snipe some distance away, it is best to look at the folded wing to find out whether it can be a Pintail Snipe or another snipe. On the fore-wing area of the Pintail Snipe there is a distinct pale spot pattern formed by whitish and buffet spots on the lesser and median wing-coverts. This area is in clear contrast to the darker plumage of the rest of the wing and upper body. This characteristic is more obvious when the bird is observed from the side. Sometimes, however, barred flank feathers overlap the lower edge of the folded wing. You have to be aware that when observing in the field, the plumage tone can vary greatly depending on the lighting conditions and therefore a snipe can appear paler or darker at a certain point in time than with neutral light – if there is such a thing. This can lead to the problem that it is not clear whether the bird is a Pintail Snipe or another species of snipes. A longer view, whenever possible, is useful in order to be able to correctly assess the color in the field. This is especially true when the bird is exposed to bright sunlight from one side, from the top or from the back.

Checking some of the features above, was very helpful when seeing a vagrant Pintail Snipe on Gambell, a small village on the north-western tip of the remote St. Lawrence Island, one of the islands in the Bering Sea in the north-western corner of Alaska. There had been some very good Asian species already. Far outstanding was the Pintail Snipe, which was finally only identified by checking the images shot and discussing sighting and sound impressions in the group. First reviews from experts for ID-confirmations turned out to be positive.

The snipe was flushed at close distance in the so-called Far Boneyard, flew low and a very short distance on first flush and then flew farther and higher on second flush, always from dry ground, although bird flew high it circled back around, we were not able to flush it a third time the bird called once, not particularly sharp like Common/Wilson’s but also not particularly wheezy (fairly short and quiet call). The images of the bird show a coloration very buffy overall and no white trailing edge to the secondaries. Photos obtained in flight – as the one of the blog from Gambell showed Common Snipe like underwing pattern, complete lack of trailing edge, toes projecting well beyond tail, short-looking bill and overall buffy appearance with buffy panel in upperwing.

In Alaska or in western Europe the Pintail Snipe is a – maybe overlooked – vagrant. On the other hand, the Pintail Snipe is a highly migratory species, wintering mainly in the Indian subcontinent and southeastern Asia and regularly encountered in southeastern Asia during the northern winter. In the migrant season it can occur in National Parks and other areas with grassy or marshy wetlands. Though it is shy by nature sometimes a bird or a few birds become bold and stand quite out in the open providing good views.

To cope with the growing demand for top shots of the rarer species of the Palearctic Bird-Lens is keen to enrich the range of pictures of birds not only in the western Palearctic. Trips to remote places like this one to capture images were very successful. The nice image of the blog is only a first impression, what you will find in the gallery in the “Picture Shop” very soon. Just give a message, if could serve you with an image needed before the new pictures are online.

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