In the wake of Typhoon Usagi, on 26 September, Jason Azahari Reyes was out looking at snipes in the wet fields around Tuaran, Sabah. He came across one he thought was larger and paler than the rest, and took a short series of photos. Jason’s own account is here: http://horukuru.blogspot.com/2013/10/japanese-snipe-aka-lathams.html, and he’s kindly allowed me to post his photos here.
He also took a video of the bird feeding. It’s worth setting the quality to the max and watching fullscreen.
When Jason sent me the photos and video, I was immediately struck by its paleness, the large square-looking head, and the bird’s apparent bulk. Could this be a Latham’s Snipe?
Back in December 2010, I wrote: Latham’s Snipe is an anomaly among the region’s waders. It breeds commonly in parts of north-east Asia and Japan, and is the commonest snipe occurring in eastern Australia in the non-breeding season. However, there are no records at all from South-east Asia or Borneo. While the majority presumably fly straight over or pass further east, I find it hard to believe that bad weather or other circumstances don’t occasionally deposit one or two in Sabah at least.
Mann (2008) and Phillipps (2011) also mention the possibility of Latham’s occurring, but the problem is identifying one with certainty!
In many cases of difficult groups of species, advances in understanding of identification features in recent years have solved identity conundrums which baffled birders a generation ago. With snipes, it’s the opposite – advances in understanding have actually made identification more difficult!
Pick up a field guide from 20 years ago, and you’ll find numerous helpful tips on identifying Pintail, Swinhoe’s and Latham’s Snipes in the field. For example, the Field Guide to the Waterbirds of Asia (published in 1993) says Japanese Snipe (aka Latham’s) “can be distinguished from Swinhoe’s by the latter’s longest primary being on average 13mm longer than the tertials at rest, while in Japanese Snipe, both are about the same length. Pintail Snipe’s tail projects slightly beyond the tip of the closed wings; in Japanese Snipe, tail projects well beyond.”
Sounds straightforward, until you read a more recent publication like Shorebirds of the Northern Hemisphere (Chandler, 2009), which says of Swinhoes: “no (or short) primary projection beyond tertials.” Leader and Carey’s important 2003 paper Identification of Pintail Snipe and Swinhoe’s Snipe does not deal with Latham’s, but says of Pintail and Swiinhoe’s that differences between the two species “have been overstated in past literature” and that “separation of the two species based on size and structure, even if both are together for direct comparison, is not possible in most cases, unless the diagnostic shape of the outer tail feathers is visible.” In short, it’s not as simple as we thought!
Although Latham’s may be a little more distinct from Pintail and Swinhoe’s than either are from each other, certain identification still largely rests on getting good views of the outer tail feathers.
These paintings are taken from a brilliant little book on waders in Japanese by Osao and Michiaki Ujihara. It was published in 2004.
As can be seen from the illustration, it’s the shape of the outer tail feathers which is the critical factor. The outer 5-6 pairs of tail feathers on Pintail Snipe are pin-like; on Swinhoe’s, the outer feathers get progressively narrower toward the outside; while on Latham’s the outer tail feathers are rather broad and Common Snipe-like, with only the outermost pair being significantly narrower. The white background to the outer tail feathers may be a useful feature too, though this juvenile Swinhoe’s also shows a white background colour to the outer tail feathers.
Another feature which seems to have stood the test of time is toe projection beyond the tail in flight. Swinhoe’s and Pintail both have one, Latham’s doesn’t (most of the time, but see below!)
Even poor flight shots like these clearly show the toes projecting beyond the tail tip on these Swinhoe’s-or-Pintail Snipes.
While these even poorer flight shots of Latham’s show the lack of toe projection beyond the tail.
As far as I know, the tail feathers and the toe projection are the strongest diagnostic criteria for establishing the identity of a suspected Latham’s Snipe away from the breeding grounds. Of course, there are other features which are suggestive.
Several regional experts took a look at Jason’s pictures and video, including Haruhiko Asuka (Japan), Park Jong Gil and Nial Moores (Korea) and Danny Rogers (Australia). The opinions on this bird were pretty unanimous – i.e. that it probably is a Latham’s, but there’s no way of being completely sure!
Well, it’s a learning process, and at least this bird will hopefully get people out looking, especially in Sabah, where Latham’s is probably most likely. Many useful tips were provided in the correspondence with the people mentioned above, and I hope they won’t mind that I ‘harvested’ these from their emails and put them together in a table.
Snipes present one of the toughest identification challenges of any group of birds in our region, and this post is presented as a Work In Progress, in the hope that others will build on it.
To finish off, some keys when watching snipes:
1. The outer tail feathers are the key. Seeing these well takes patience and luck! Snipes fan their tails a) when sunbathing b) when preening and c) when fighting. If you watch them for long enough, with luck they may do one of the above. It really helps to video them, as the tail fanning is usually too quick to capture by taking a still shot.
2. Take flight shots
3. Try to record vocalizations