Boat survey of the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA, Penang, 23 Mar 2014

This second survey of the season will be remembered by those who came for the choppy seas and soaking spray, courtesy of rather strong NW winds. Two of us will remember it for another reason – because 2 of us saw a Spoon-billed Sandpiper! But 2 of us didn’t! I was in the latter group, though not for want of trying. A few other shots from the day below.

Brown-headed Gull_TAT-KM IBA_230314_IMG_6672Brown-headed Gulls were ready to go, and numbers were well down on last month’s count.

Common Redshank_TAT-KM IBA_230314_IMG_6708One or two craggi race Common Redshanks stood out from the crowd as they had begun to develop their foxy brown plumage (upper right).

Common Redshank_TAT-KM IBA_230314_IMG_6915A mixed flock of Common Redshanks and Terek Sandpipers.wader roost_TAT-KM IBA_230314_IMG_6725

Lighting conditions were variable and the haze further hampered things.

Marsh Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_230314_IMG_6757At other times the sun was out, providing perfect lighting for this photo of a Marsh Sandpiper.

small calidrids_TAT-KM IBA_230314_IMG_6814The usual suspects – a mixed flock of Red-necked Stints, Broad-billed Sandpipers and Curlew Sandpipers.Asian Dowitcher_TAT-KM IBA_230314_IMG_6874 Asian Dowitcher_TAT-KM IBA_230314_IMG_6882

There were a couple of Asian Dowitchers starting to come into nice red plumage.

Black-tailed Godwit_TAT-KM IBA_230314_IMG_6878A Black-tailed (right) and Bar-tailed Godwit dwarfing surrounding Curlew Sandpipers.IMG_5479

Spoonie fail! We spent a lot of time scouring the stints for the Spoonie – not easy from a rocking and rolling boat. And there were plenty of Red-necked Stints intent on fooling us. This one stood right in front of the primary projection of the bird behind, causing a missed heartbeat!

IMG_6704 IMG_6679= IMG_6678 IMG_6674 IMG_6775 IMG_5679The really devious ones were those which went around with clods of congealed mud stuck to their bills. These are easy enough to discount on a still photo, but a lot more difficult when things are moving about! For more on the differences between real and fake Spoonies, see here!

Air Itam Dalam and Bagan Belat, 22 Mar 2014

Air Itam Dalam has had an exceptional run of hawk-cuckoo records this spring, and Mr and Mrs Hum have been doing a sterling job of documenting them photographically. One of the birds they photographed on 19 March showed several features associated with Northern Hawk-cuckoo, and it was with the aim of studying this bird that I headed to the site early in the morning.

Large Hawk-cuckoo_AID_220314_IMG_1769Unfortunately, the only hawk-cuckoo I could find was this subadult Large Hawk-cuckoo. It was extremely skittish, and disappeared into the thick stuff at the slightest disturbance.

Buffy Fish-owl_AID_220314_IMG_1773 Spotted Wood-owl_AID_220314_IMG_1791 Mangrove Blue Flycatcher_AID_220314_IMG_1775 Forest Wagtail_AID_220314_IMG_1790Some of Air Itam Dalam’s ‘regulars’ – roosting Buffy Fish-owl and Spotted Wood-owl, Mangrove Blue Flycatcher and Forest Wagtail.phyllosc_AID_220314_IMG_6417

There was also a ‘Pale-legged type’ Leaf Warbler, which showed well at times. Recent records in the Gulf of Thailand and Singapore suggest that Sakhalin Leaf Warbler may be the commoner of this difficult species pair in the Peninsula, so I was eager to see how it would respond to playback of the songs of both species. The result? It showed no visible response to either! Big disappointment!

Tim and I were hosting a visitor from England who was keen to see some shorebirds, so we headed for the coast at Bagan Belat, where the tide was low and the shorebirds were predictably distant.

However, I was surprised to hear the familiar tink call of another ‘Pale-legged’ Leaf Warbler coming from the coastal scrub, so in I went again with my playback of the songs. First I played the song of Pale-legged for about 3 minutes. No sign of the bird. Then I played the song of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. The response was almost immediate!

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler_Bagan Belat_220314_IMG_6429Overhead and looking down for the intruder.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler_Bagan Belat_220314_IMG_6508Over the next hour or so I played the songs of both species again, and each time I played the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler song, I got the same immediate response.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler_Bagan Belat_220314_IMG_6565I did not manage to hear or record the song, but this photo shows that it was clearly singing!

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler_Bagan Belat_220314_IMG_6648There’s no certain way to differentiate these in the field other than by song. Even in the hand, there is apparently quite an overlap in wing length, with only  birds at either end of the spectrum (Sakhalin has longer wings, Pale-legged shorter) being identifiable with certainty.

Several observers have noted that Sakhalin’s tink call is lower-pitched than Pale-legged, and if you compare the calls of birds identified by song, such as this Pale-legged and this Sakhalin (in Singapore!), and their accompanying sonograms, the difference in pitch is quite evident, with Sakhalin being around 5kHz and Pale-legged around 6kHz. In addition, to my ears, Pale-legged sounds thin and weak, whereas Sakhalin’s call is appreciably fuller. I was not able to record the call of the Bagan Belat bird, but all my recordings of birds in Perlis are lower-pitched, some even lower than the Singapore bird. The only fly in the ointment of this potential differentiating character are two recordings of apparently the same bird (though it was not actually seen) giving both call types, made in Hangzhou Bay, China by Frank Lambert. This recording is of a thin high-pitched call (around 6kHz), while this one sounds identical to that of the Singapore bird to my ears (and is around 5kHz). This anomalous example apart, a survey of calls of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on xenocanto in Vietnam and Cambodia reveals that all of the recordings are of the thin, higher-pitched call associated with Pale-legged. Another bird recorded in Hangzhou Bay sounds much more like Sakhalin, a possibility noted by Frank in the notes accompanying the recording.

So, are there any certain records of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler in Malaysia? Wells (2007) gives the range of wing lengths of 7 skins from the Thai-Malay Peninsula as 59-68mm. Birds at the lower end of this range should be Pale-legged, but, for the time being at least, Pale-legged should probably be square-bracketed as a Malaysian bird.

In the meantime, anyone heading to Perlis in the next few weeks would be well-advised to carry a recording of the song of both species (downloadable from xeno-canto), and a recording device to document any response.

Sungai Sedim and Kulim Hi-Tech Park, 17 Mar 2014

A text from Mun on Sunday evening about a ‘large, all brown snipe’ flushed off the forest floor at Sungai Sedim on Saturday sent me scuttling over there first thing in the morning in the hope of finding what must surely have been a Eurasian Woodcock.

Before dawn in the car park, there were a number of swiftlets flying around, including three or four of these…

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sedim_170314_IMG_6163At first, I thought I was looking at Silver-rumped Spinetails, but on closer inspection, I realized my mistake.

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sedim_170314_IMG_6158I realized I was watching what were presumably newly-fledged Black-nest Swiftlets. I identified them as such on the basis of the well-capped appearance and grey-brown underparts and rump. Besides, I doubt they could have flown this far if they were from a ‘swiftlet hotel’ somewhere.

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sedim_170314_IMG_6177Here’s an adult with ‘normal’ tailshape. Apart from these, and very distinct from them were…

Himalayan Swiftlet_Sedim_170314_IMG_6128These swiftlets were distinctive, not only in that they had long, broad-based, well-forked tails, but in their manner of flight. This was a series of shallow, stiff-winged, fluttering wingbeats, followed by long glides. The flight mode was reminiscent of a treeswift (but lacked the deep wingbeats) and enabled them to be picked out with the naked eye.

Himalayan Swiftlet_Sedim_170314_IMG_6123 Himalayan Swiftlet_Sedim_170314_IMG_6120The tail fork was noticeable at all times, even when the tail was well-spread, and I found the breadth of the tail striking. It seemed broader at the base than the Black-nest Swiftlets. I have no doubt that these were Himalayn Swiftlets, and was pleased that they were more distinctive than I had expected. Unfortunately, they cleared off well before it got properly light, so I was unable to see any colour on them.

My Woodcock search proved fruitless, so I decided to head home. While driving through Kulim Hi-Tech Park I noticed a weir with water flowing over it on my left. The drought since January has been so severe that anywhere with water is worth a look, so I did a U-turn and made my way eventually to a manmade flood mitigation lagoon with a stream running through it. It looked promising!IMG_1763

The weir I had spotted from the road is at the far end of this photo, and when I reached it, I flushed this…

Green Sandpiper_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_6286Until almost exactly a month ago, I had searched without success for a Green Sandpiper in Malaysia (for eighteen years!). The very next day, I saw my second, and now here was the third of the month! They’re like buses! This bird was coming into breeding plumage, and had less marking on the tail than the bird in Chuping.

Green Sandpiper_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_6288It was flighty, but obviously wanted to come back to the weir, which provided some shade in the midday sun, so all I had to do was wait quietly.

Green Sandpiper_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_6203Showing the distinctive black underwing.

Green Sandpiper_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_6217Coming back!

Green Sandpiper_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_1699 Green Sandpiper_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_1694The bird was quite a lot larger than nearby Wood Sandpipers.Green Sandpiper_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_1726Green Sandpiper_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_6260 Green Sandpiper_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_6321

It eventually returned to the weir, but the heat haze bouncing off the pvc lining of the stream made it impossible to get really crisp shots.

Eurasian Kestrel_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_6390This interesting new site had one more surprise for me before I left. There were several Oriental Pratincoles soaring high overhead, but I noticed something different among them…

Eurasian Kestrel_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_170314_IMG_6367A smart male Eurasian Kestrel. At the time I thought it was migrating, but others have seen it since, so perhaps it will hang around for a while.

So, the potential superstar did not put in an appearance, but a very creditable supporting cast made the morning’s trip worthwhile.


Wadering in mainland Penang, 13 March 2014

First light saw me stationed in my car alongside the ‘painted-snipe marsh’. There were several birds extremely close, but getting them out in the open was another matter!

Greater Painted-snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_ 130314_IMG_5158Greater Painted-snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_ 130314_IMG_5164Two males trying not to be seen!Greater Painted-snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_ 130314_IMG_5204Greater Painted-snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_ 130314_IMG_5190

Eventually a young female appeared, feeding by delicately picking insects off the top of the grass stems.

Greater Painted-snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_ 130314_IMG_5191Understated beauty!Swintail Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_ 130314_IMG_5227

Sorry to slip this in! Just to illustrate how frustrating these things can be – I got a sharp shot showing the outer tail and I still can’t identify it! There aren’t quite enough of the outer tail feathers showing for me to be certain if this is Pintail or Swinhoe’s Snipe.

From here I moved to the ‘snipe ditch’, but I have shown most of the shots from there in this post. Once it started to get really hot, I moved to the coast and hired a boat for a couple of hours to try my luck on the advancing tide.

wader roost_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6045There were one or two birds about!

Red-necked Stint_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5519Of course, I was only looking for one bird amongst all that lot – the Spoonie we had photographed in February, so most of my attention was focused on the Red-necked Stints.Red-necked Stint_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5598

There were plenty to look through…

Red-necked Stint_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5624 Red-necked Stint_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5945…in a variety of plumages…

leg flag Red-necked Stint_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5595…including this bird flagged on Chongming Dao in Shanghai.

Little Stint and RNS_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5501No Spoonies, but I did pick up a couple of Little Stints. This shot is the best I have of the first one, but it shows the small head, round body, upright posture and long legs typical of the species.

Little Stint_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5527 Little Stint_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5534The second one was brighter and also more obliging, being the closest bird to the boat at one point.

Broad-billed Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5932There were lots of Broad-billed Sandpipers, including the two here (with a Red-necked Stint on the left).

Broad-billed Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6021They’re midway in size between Red-necked Stint (right)…

Broad-billed Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5950…and Curlew Sandpiper (also right).Great Knot_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6096

Curlew Sandpipers (left) are, in turn, dwarfed by Great Knots.

Asian Dowitcher_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6052A lone Asian Dowitcher foraging on the advancing tide.

Nordmann's Greenshank_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6055And a single Nordmann’s Greenshank. It looked rather dozy.

Nordmann's Greenshank_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6076 Nordmann's Greenshank_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6078But it perked up later and began engaging in typical crab-hunting runs.possible Aleutian Tern_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5669

A mystery tern in the roost. This bird was much smaller-billed than the Common Terns (the three right hand birds) and too long-tailed to be a Whiskered. I didn’t spot this in the field, only on my monitor when checking later that evening, so I only have a single frame. Initially, I thought this might be an Aleutian Tern, but eventually, with help from others, I concluded that the best fit is a Common Tern with an exceptionally small bill.

There were plenty of opportunities to practice taking flight shots as the tide rose. Here are a few.

Red-necked Stint_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5809 Red-necked Stint_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5814

Red-necked Stint_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5989Red-necked Stint.

Broad-billed Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5919Broad-billed Sandpiper.

Curlew Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5717Curlew Sandpiper.

Curlew Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5879With both shadow and reflection!

Curlew Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5767Note how short-billed the right hand bird is. This is likely to be a male (females are longer-billed).Curlew Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5712 Curlew Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5656

Curlew Sands all in a row!

small calidrids_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5846All together now! From left to right, Curlew Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Broad-billed Sandpiper.small calidrids_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5826 small calidrids_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5766

Mixed flocks of the three common small calidrids – Curlew Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpier and Red-necked Stint.Marsh Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5997 Marsh Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5999

Marsh Sandpipers.

Marsh Sandpiper and Common Greenshank_TAT-KM IBA_130314Marsh Sandpiper (left) and Common Greenshank (right).Lesser Sand Plover_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6036

Lesser Sand Plover.

Eurasian Curlew_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6009Calling Eurasian Curlew.

Eurasian Curlew_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6011No man ever made anything so beautiful!

Eurasian Curlew_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5981Eurasian Curlews along the surfline.

Far Eastern Curlew_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_5971The lone Far Eastern Curlew.

Whimbrel_TAT-KM IBA_130314_IMG_6027Whimbrels are darker above and much more compact than curlews.

No Spoonie in the end, but a good slection of birds, and a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours!

Mainland Penang, 3 March 2014

This was a morning sortie in search of snipes, but I will spare you the ordeal of more confusing snipe photos, and post a few of the other birds I saw.

Greater Painted-snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_030314_IMG_5040At least these are easy to identify! A female Greater Painted-snipe – one of many in a small patch of marsh which was still wet. Such places are increasingly scarce in this prolonged drought period we’ve been experiencing, so finding one is like finding a goldmine for marsh-birds and marsh-birders alike!

Greater Painted-snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_030314_IMG_5054Painted-snipes are one of the relatively few wader families in which the females are polyandrous, mating with several males, and taking no part in incubating the eggs or rearing the young. They initiate courtship and display, and in consequence, are more brightly coloured than the males. Despite the name, painted-snipes are not true snipes, nor are they closely related.

Greater Painted-snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_030314_IMG_5070This looks superficially like a male, but the plain wing coverts and the presence of a few burgundy-coloured feathers on the neck show that it is a subadult female.

Asian Openbill_Kg Permatang Nibong_030314_IMG_5033The tiny patch of marsh even attracted a couple of Asian Openbills. Even though they are now well-established as a Malaysian bird, I still do a double-take every time I see one!

Manchurian Reed-warbler_Kg Permatang Nibong_030314_IMG_4897From one recent arrival to another. Actually, Manchurian Reed Warblers have probably been wintering in Peninsular Malaysia for years, but it’s only in this past season that we’ve discovered them.

Manchurian Reed-warbler_Kg Permatang Nibong_030314_IMG_4904In contrast to November, there was no sign of active wing and tail moult, though this photo suggests that one or two tail and secondary feathers may be missing. It’s difficult to judge the freshness of the tail as the tips were wet and partly matted.

The contrast between the pale fringes and dark centres of the tertials and exposed secondaries is strikingly different from the relatively plain wing of Black-browed.

Manchurian Reed-warbler_Kg Permatang Nibong_030314_IMG_4946Other differences from Black-browed include:

  • long, heavy-looking bill
  • unmarked yellow lower mandible
  • clearly demarcated dark lores and eyestripe (which contrasts behind the eye with pale lower ear coverts)
  • the short dark lateral crown stripe (on Black-browed, it extends to the rear of the supercilium)
  • pale iris
  • supercilium narrowing over the eye
  • overall bright, warm plumage tones
  • quite bright pink legs


Manchurian Reed-warbler_Kg Permatang Nibong_030314_IMG_4997

  • the remarkably long tail

Manchurian Reed-warbler_Kg Permatang Nibong_030314_IMG_4954… which is often held cocked at a shallow angle.

Smart birds, and once you get your eye and ear in, quite easily distinguished from Black-browed.


Boat survey of the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA, Penang, 21 Feb 2014

Having got the snipes out of the way, I have a bit of catching up to do. First up is this boat survey carried out last month as part of the Cemex/MNS/BirdLife Biodiversity Action Plan project.

Boat surveys don’t always offer very good photo opps, as the birds tend to be rather distant, and the focus is on counting.

small wader and gull roost_WP178_210214_IMG_4545If you are a wader buff though, this is a good opportunity to hone your identification skills of birds at a distance.

Great Knot_WP166_210214_IMG_4393Great Knots tend to form dense flocks. Common Redshanks do too, but a glimpse of a black breast on several birds is sufficient to confirm that these were mostly Great Knots.

Red Knot_WP179_210214_IMG_4725Spotting Red Knots is easier at this time of year, as they are begining to develop their rich chestnut underpart plumage.

Asian Dowitcher_WP166_210214_IMG_4403A flock of Asian Dowitchers – they look quite a lot smaller than Bar-tailed Godwits (the sleeping bird in the centre).Black-tailed Godwit_WP172_210214_IMG_4456

Black-tailed Godwits are distinctively long-legged.

Black-tailed Godwit_WP171_210214_IMG_4438Of course, they are unmistakable in flight!Eurasian Curlew_WP173_210214_IMG_4496

Eurasian Curlews are ghostly pale compared to Far Eastern and Whimbrel.

Far Eastern Curlew_WP171_210214_IMG_4445Far Eastern Curlews are scarce. This single bird was foraging along the bank of a river estuary.Nordmann's Greenshank_WP178_210214_IMG_4651

Rivermouths are deeper and have more steeply shelving banks than the shorelines between estuaries, enabling the boat to approach a little more closely. This first winter Nordmann’s Greenshank watched our approach suspiciously…

Nordmann's Greenshank_WP178_210214_IMG_4652…before deciding we were getting a little too close. It gave us a glimpse of its pure white underwings as it flew off.WP178_IMG_4598 WP178_IMG_4592 small wader roost_WP178_210214_IMG_4595

Rivermouths also tend to be roosting or pre-roosting areas, as the tide rises.small wader roost_WP178_210214_IMG_4716

This is where the camera comes into its own, both for counting and identification of individual species.small wader roost_WP178_210214_IMG_4504

For example, with this roosting flock, I took photos regularly as I scanned slowly through the flock.

small wader roost_WP178_210214_IMG_4569Then, later that evening, I pored over each frame carefully, looking for anything unusual.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper_WP178_210214_IMG_4552For example, you might be able to spot something interesting here!Spoon-billed Sandpiper_TAT-KM IBA_21.2.14_IMG_4552

I shot two frames of this part of the flock. On the first, the preening bird’s bill was concealed; on the second, it was perfectly outlined against the white flank, revealing the unmistakable profile of a Spoon-billed SandpiperEastern Marsh Harrier_WP178_210214_IMG_4665. What are the chances of that??!

While watching the wader roost at high tide, we were surprised to see this subadult female Eastern Marsh Harrier approach low over the mangroves. She obviously knew what she would find there!

Eastern Marsh Harrier_WP178_210214_IMG_4687She gave us a wary eye, but did not seem unduly perturbed by our presence – one advantage of being in a boat!

After tallying up the counts, we had seen 12,550 waders of 22 species, 150 egrets and herons, and 746 gulls and terns.

Keep Calm and Study Snipes! Part 2

I admit it – you have to be a certain kind of crazy to be ‘into’ snipes! But, if you are afflicted with the condition – is there any hope?

I’ll base this post largely on Identification of Pintail Snipe and Swinhoe’s Snipe by Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, a paper published in British Birds in 2003, which is downloadable here. Their research was based on detailed study of 68 Pintail Snipes and 19 Swinhoe’s Snipes in the hand during ringing studies carried out 1999-2001, as well as data from a further 25 Pintail and 14 Swinhoe’s trapped prior to this, all in Hong Kong, and examination of skins from two museum collections. It remains the best starting point published to date from which to start addressing this thorny identification issue.

They evaluated a number of field characteristics which had been previously considered reliable in distinguishing the two species and came to the following conclusions:


Overall size

Assumption: Swinhoe’s is commonly stated to be 10-20% larger than Pintail.

Leader and Carey: Although Swinhoe’s Snipe is larger than Pintail Snipe on average, size and structure are extremely variable, with extensive overlap on all standard measurements. Accordingly, their separation based on size, even if both are together for direct comparison, is not possible in the field.

Bill length

Assumption: Swinhoe’s bill is commonly stated to be longer than Pintail, approaching that of Common.

Leader and Carey: Complete overlap in measurements.

Wing length

Assumption: Swinhoe’s wing length is commonly stated to be 5-10% longer than Pintail.

Leader and Carey: Large degree of overlap and the difference does not translate into a discernible field character.

Primary projection beyond tertials

Assumption: Primary projection beyond the longest tertial has been suggested as a useful structural difference -  short in Pintail Snipe, and long in Swinhoe’s.

Leader and Carey: Pintail Snipe is particularly variable and sometimes exhibits a longer primary projection than Swinhoe’s. About half of all Pintail Snipe and Swinhoe’s Snipe show no primary projection.

Tail projection beyond the wingtips

Assumption: On Pintail, the tail barely projects beyond the primaries. Viewed in profile, the short tail projection gives Pintail Snipe a truncated rear end and squat appearance, quite different to that of Swinhoe’s, which has a longer tail approaching that of Common Snipe.

Leader and Carey: On average, Swinhoe’s Snipe has a tail which is 5.8 mm longer than that of Pintail Snipe. However, in terms of relative structure, this is largely negated by the difference in wing length between the two species, which averages 6.5 mm longer on Swinhoe’s. This results in a very similar wing/tail ratio for the two species, averaging 2.98 for Pintail Snipe and 2.80 for Swinhoe’s Snipe.

Toe projection beyond the tail in flight

Assumption: Due to the shortness of the tail, on Pintail Snipe the toes project further beyond the tail tip in flight.

Leader and Carey: Observations of released birds of confirmed identity do indicate that this may be a useful feature. This is, however, based only on a small sample of Swinhoe’s Snipes and the validity of this feature is best treated as tentative, pending further research.

Head Shape

Assumption: Swinhoe’s has a squarer head which peaks behind the eye

Leader and Carey: Pintail Snipe tends to have a more rounded head profile and a steeper forehead, whereas on Swinhoe’s Snipe, the forehead tends to appear more shallow and sloping, giving that species a more angular head profile. In addition, the eye seems to be set closer to the centre of the head in Pintail Snipe, but further back on many Swinhoe’s Snipes. Indeed, occasionally on Swinhoe’s Snipe, most of the eye appears to lie in the rear half of the head. There is, however, much variation.

Leg Thickness

Swinhoe’s Snipe tends to have significantly thicker legs than Pintail Snipe, with most Swinhoe’s Snipes taking a larger ring size than Pintail Snipes. Some Swinhoe’s Snipes do, however, have thinner legs, resembling those of Pintail Snipe, so this is a ‘one-way character’. A bird with thicker legs than a Common Snipe is probably Swinhoe’s. This feature is extremely difficult to assess in the field, but may be possible to discern on good quality photographs.

Shape of the outer tail feathers

The outer tail feathers of both species are distinctly narrow when compared with those of Common Snipe. On Pintail Snipe, the outer eight pairs of tail feathers (sometimes six to nine pairs) are all less than 2 mm wide (see here). On Swinhoe’s Snipe, only the outermost pair is narrow, varying between two and four millimetres in width, 20 mm from the tip. The next one to four pairs are slightly broader, and the rest increasingly so towards the central pair (see here). Observing this is, however, extremely difficult under normal field conditions, and requires exceptional views (assuming the bird is not in tail moult!).


Leg colour

Assumption:  Pintail Snipe tends to show grey-green legs and Swinhoe’s Snipe has yellower legs.

Leader and Carey: There is extensive overlap in this feature also between the two species.


Loral stripe thickness

Assumption:  The loral stripe of Pintail Snipe is rather narrow, at times almost disappearing in front of the eye.

Leader and Carey: Shape, colour and definition variable, overlapping completely with Swinhoe’s.

Median crown stripe

Assumption: The median crown-stripe of Pintail Snipe sometimes reaches the bill base, but this is unusual on Swinhoe’s Snipe.

Leader and Carey: This feature varies widely, with the median crown-stripe reaching the bill base on about 30% of of Swinhoe’s Snipes and 40% of Pintail Snipes.

Pale fringe to lower scapulars

Assumption: The fringes are broader on Swinhoe’s Snipe.

Leader and Carey: The width of the fringes is variable in both species, with no consistent differences.

Amount of white in the tail

Assumption: Swinhoe’s Snipe  shows more white in the tail than Pintail Snipe.

Leader and Carey: This does not take into account the variation in tail pattern of Swinhoe’s. Pintail Snipe consistently shows white tips and inner webs to the narrow outer rectrices. If present, the pale tips to the central rectrices are buffish, and rarely whitish. In comparison, although Swinhoe’s Snipe usually has white tips to the outer rectrices, these may also be rich buff or pale ginger, colours rarely, if ever, shown by Pintail Snipe. The central rectrices of Swinhoe’s Snipe may also be conspicuously tipped pale, often white, unlike Pintail. Swinhoe’s Snipe consistently shows barred or chequered outer rectrices, however. On Pintail, these are typically plain, except for white tips. Patterned (barred or chequered) outer tail feathers are exceptional in Pintail, and while some Swinhoe’s occasionally show plain outer tail feathers, and thus appear extremely
similar to Pintail, a bird with white tips to the central rectrices and chequered or barred outer rectrices is most probably a Swinhoe’s Snipe.


Assumption: Differences exist between the normal flight calls of the two species. Pintail Snipe is believed to have a more slurred, throaty and nasal call which sometimes resembles the ‘quack’ of a duck. The call of Swinhoe’s Snipe is described as similar in pitch, though at times rather flat and low. When flushed, Swinhoe’s Snipe calls less frequently than Pintail Snipe, and a flushed snipe which is silent is most likely to be the former.

Leader and Carey: Vocalisations of flushed Pintail or Swinhoe’s Snipes in Hong Kong fall into two distinct types which agree broadly with those described above. The first call type, generally the most frequently heard and believed to be given by Pintail Snipe, is higher pitched, more nasal, slightly more urgent and does, indeed, resemble a duck’s ‘quack’.

The second call type, tentatively attributed to Swinhoe’s Snipe, is lower pitched and flatter, with a more throaty quality. This call was heard (though not recorded) from a known Swinhoe’s Snipe released after ringing. This second call type is less frequently heard among migrant snipe in Hong Kong, certainly proportionately less so than would be expected by the relative numbers of the two species trapped. If this second call type is attributable exclusively to Swinhoe’s Snipe, it would appear that Swinhoe’s Snipe calls more reluctantly than Pintail Snipe. Given the difficulties of field identification, more research is needed to establish whether these two call types are diagnostic. It should be stressed that these calls, although different from the calls of Common Snipe, are sufficiently similar to each other to confuse observers unfamiliar with the calls of Swinhoe’s or Pintail Snipes. Even to experienced ears, some poorly heard calls can be confusingly ambiguous.


So, after this exhaustive study of Pintail and Swinhoe’s Snipes by Carey and Leader, what are we left with?

Suggestive of Swinhoe’s

  • Short toe projection beyond tail in flight (but how short is short?)
  • Less rounded, more angular head, with eye set rear of centre on the head
  • Legs thicker than those of Common
  • White tips to central tail feathers
  • Barred or chequered outer tail feathers
  • Flat, low call lacking nasal, slurred or throaty qualities

Diagnostic of Swinhoe’s

  • Outer tail feather shape

So, is that it?

Almost certainly not. Positively, the Leader and Carey study focused mainly on birds in the hand. There may yet be field characters, such as aspects of jizz, which are apparent in birds in the field and visible in photographs, which were not picked up by the Hong Kong study.

Negatively, views of the outer tail feathers in the field, even on high quality photographs, do not usually present the shape and number of outer tail feathers with the same clarity as on a bird in the hand.

More on the tail

Pintail Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_130314_IMG_5259

Pintail Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2014

Pintail Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_130314_IMG_5323

Pintail Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2014

Two photos of the tail of the same Pintail Snipe showing white tips to all tail feathers, including the centrals. However, the white tips to the central tail feathers are very narrow (and possibly exaggerated due to the photo being slightly overexposed). It may be that broad white tips to the central tail feathers are indeed indicative of Swinhoe’s (see below)

The pattern on the outer tail feathers of both species may be related to gender. Ayuwat has a great post here, in which he states that males have more solidly black (white-tipped) outer feathers  than females. The photo of the female Swinhoe’s in his post (on the left) shows the barred/chequered pattern mentioned by Leader and Carey.

However, the chances of seeing the outer tail feathers of any snipe in the field well enough to see their colour and shape are slim and require both perseverance and luck. A snipe is most likely to fan its tail momentarily when preening, stretching, landing, sunbathing or adopting an alarm/threat posture. Even then, the tail may not be fully spread, and more often than not, the outermost tail feathers remain tucked out of sight. So, can anything useful be gleaned from the rest of the tail?

Initial perusal of the tail photos accompanying the Leader and Carey paper suggests that, while Swinhoe’s tail feathers become progressively narrower from the central to the outer tail feathers (see this example), Pintail has very broad centrals and then very narrow outers, with no intermediate-width feathers between (see this photo). However, even this difference doesn’t seem to be consistent! This photo of a Pintail Snipe tail shows one feather of intermediate width between the broad centrals and pin-like outers, as does this one. So real care needs to be taken when evaluating the width of feathers between the centrals and the outers. Are there enough intermediate-width feathers visible to support identification as Swinhoe’s?

Swinhoe's Snipe_Permatang Pauh_160214_IMG_3107For example, in this photo, it’s impossible to see how narrow or broad the outer tail feathers are, and only one intermediate-width feather is visible between the outers and the centrals. I would say that id is unproven on this view.

Swinhoe's Snipe_Permatang Pauh_160214_IMG_3132Only one outer tail feather is visible, and again, it’s hard to be certain of its width, though it does not look pin-like. Only one intermediate-width feather is visible, so again, I would say that identification is not certain in this view.

Swinhoe's Snipe_Permatang Pauh_160214_IMG_3191

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 16 Feb 2014

Finally I can see two intermediate-width feathers, the first narrower than the centrals and the outer of the two narrower again. On this view I can be certain that this is a Swinhoe’s. Incidentally, the central tail feathers do seem to be clearly tipped white.

PinSwin Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_130314_IMG_5411

Pintail or Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2014

Pintail or Swinhoe's Snipe_Permatang Pauh_140214_IMG_2728

Pintail or Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 14 Feb 2014

A couple of flight shots which show the tail partially spread, but not enough, in my view, to enable identification.

Swinhoe's Snipe_Permatang Pauh_100214_IMG_2371

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 10 Feb 2014

This one, on the other hand, spread the tail wide enough for the full tail to be seen. The width of the outers, and the gradation between outer and central feathers show that this is a Swinhoe’s.

Pin NHKIMG_3085

Pintail Snipe, Penang, 27 Feb 2014. (c) Neoh Hor Kee

This Pintail shows a single intermediate-width feather between the broad centrals and pin-like, slightly club-ended outers. But there is a second (white-tipped) feather between this and the broad, chestnut central feathers. It’s impossible to say how wide it is, but it does not look like a typical broad central feather. These feathers and the outers look as if they are new and still growing.

prob Pintail Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_030314_IMG_4752

Pintail or Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 3 Mar 2014

This bird shows a single intermediate-width tail feather. My guess would be that this is a Pintail, but without a clear view of the feathers outside this one, it’s hard to be certain.

Swin NHK_IMG_3537

Pintail Snipe, Penang, Feb 2014. (c) Neoh Hor Kee

This is an interesting tail shot. At first sight it appears to show two intermediate-width feathers. However, on closer inspection, I believe the outermost white-tipped feather is actually the innermost of the pinlike outer tail feathers (the same feather as that shown two photos up). Pintail Snipe outer tail feathers are slightly club-shaped, whereas Swinhoe’s are tapered. This feather, I believe, shows the clubbed shape of a typical Pintail Snipe.

Pintail Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_130314_IMG_5328

Pintail Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2014

Occasionally, the pins of a Pintail Snipe may be visible even when the tail is fully closed.

Swinhoe's Snipe_Permatang Pauh_100214_IMG_2332

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 10 Feb 2014

The even gradation from wide to narrow is visible on this Swinhoe’s tail spread.

Against the sky, it sometimes possible to see the width of the outer tail feathers. See this photo of a displaying Swinhoe’s Snipe (a vagrant in Finland!).

Pintail Snipe_Golden Triangle_021208_IMG_2596

Pintail Snipe, northern Thailand, 2 Dec 2008

Swinhoe's Snipe_Pulau Burung_130310_IMG_5159

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2010

However, the width of the outer tail feathers  is not always easily discernible in the field, or even on good photos, as the angle of the bird to the viewer can distort apparent feather width.

Hard isn’t it?

What about toe projection in flight?

The Finland Swinhoe’s Snipe showed almost no toe projection.

Swinhoe's Snipe_Pulau Burung_130310_IMG_5165

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2010

Swinhoe's Snipe_Pulau Burung_130310_IMG_5158

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2010

This Swinhoe’s Snipe (positively identified while on the ground), similarly showed a relatively short toe projection. However, I’ve found it hard to find a “Swintail” Snipe  in flight on the web with a markedly different toe projection from this. The longest I could find was this one, but the difference, if there is one, is in millimeters!

What about jizz?

Swinhoe's Snipe_Permatang Pauh_100214_IMG_2301

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 10 Feb 2014

Pintail Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_130314_IMG_5237

Pintail Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2014

These are all snipes of known identity (I photographed the outer tail feathers).

Swinhoe's Snipe_Permatang Pauh_100214_IMG_2241

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 10 Feb 2014

Swinhoe's Snipe_Permatang Pauh_100214_IMG_2265

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 10 Feb 2014

Pintail Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_130314_IMG_4752

Pintail Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2014

There does seem to be something different about the head and eye position, along the lines of Leader and Carey’s findings. This Swinhoe’s seems larger-headed and thicker necked and the eye seems to be set higher in the head than the Pintail. The Swinhoe’s also seems much deeper-chested.

Swinhoe's Snipe_Permatang Pauh_160214_IMG_1421

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 16 Feb 2014

Pintail Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_130314_IMG_5314

Pintail Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2014

Pintail looks better-proportioned and more delicate.

The problem is that these are ‘reverse engineered’ distinguishing features after having seen the outer tail feathers. I doubt I would be confident enough to certainly identify these using jizz alone.

Lateral crown stripes – a possible plumage feature?

I’m grateful to Danny Rogers for bringing my attention to the possibility that Swinhoe’s may have darker lateral crown stripes, less densely flecked with brown marks than Pintail. The difference is relatively clear between individuals trapped in Australia – Pintail here and Swinhoe’s here and here.

Swinhoe's Snipe head_Permatang Pauh_160214_IMG_1413

Swinhoe’s Snipe, Penang, 16 Feb 2014

Pintail Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_130314_IMG_5285

Pintail Snipe, Penang, 13 Mar 2014

Encouragingly, the difference also seems to hold good on these two birds of known identity here in Penang. This is certainly a feature worth checking further.

Lastly, habitat

In the years since I have been studying snipes, the only Swintail Snipes I have definitely identified in wet paddyfields have been Swinhoe’s. Conversely, when I have found Swintail Snipes in drier habitats such as cow pasture, the ones that have showed me their tails have invariably turned out to be Pintail. I have also photographed Pintail Snipes in canalized streams and ditches, where they seem equally at home foraging in running water and on the dry sandy banks and grassy tops of bunds. Swinhoe’s on the other hand are more likely to be found in standing freshwater and muddy substrate, often sharing the habitat with Common Snipes.

This leads me to a hypothesis that Swinhoe’s prefer wetter habitat than Pintail. A perusal of the photos in this post bear this out. I should add that I doubt the habitat preference is strong enough for it to constitute an identification feature.

Well, this is certainly not the last word on snipe identification, but I hope it serves as a useful collection of hard facts and unproven hypotheses. There’s still lots to learn!