As a newbie birding friend recently discovered, snipes (sadly) do not look like this!
I’ve been promising a post on snipes for a while, and it’s time to put words into action. In fact, this will be two posts. Part 1 will focus on the identification of Common Snipe, and how to distinguish it from Pintail and Swinhoe’s Snipes, and Part 2 will stir the muddy waters surrounding field identification of Pintail and Swinhoe’s Snipes.
It should be borne in mind that the notes which follow are based entirely on my experience of snipes in Malaysia. Some points may not be applicable to birds seen elsewhere in their range. For example, Leader and Carey (2002) state that Pintail and Swinhoe’s Snipes’ upperparts are “typically darker” than those of Common. This is almost never the case in my experience of birds in Malaysia.
So – Common Snipe first. There are a number of differences between Common Snipe and the other two, which I will collectively refer to as “Swintail” Snipe. I’ll mention most of them, but the first one I look for on a bird on the ground is:
Wing covert pattern
As can be seen from the photos above, on Common Snipe, each lesser and median covert is relatively weakly barred brown (sometimes much darker than on this bird) with a whitish tip divided into two spots by a dark shaft streak. On “Swintail”, the equivalent feathers are strongly barred alternately black and buff, usually lacking a contrasting whitish tip.
From a distance, “Swintail” Snipes’ coverts appear evenly barred black and buff, while Common shows several lines of whitish spots contrasting with a darker brown or blackish background colour.
However (why does there always have to be a ‘however’?!), there are times when wing covert pattern may be unreliable…
… such as when the scapulars cloak the coverts, or when the bird is in heavy moult.
Additionally, although I find the covert pattern reliable in 95% of birds seen in Malaysia, there have been one or two confusing birds which haven’t quite ‘followed the guidelines’!
This Common Snipe’s coverts are rather strongly barred black, more like ‘typical’ Swintail.
At the time I identified this as a Common Snipe on the basis of the wing covert pattern. Ingo Waschkies questioned my id, which I defended stoutly. However, looking at it now, I think Ingo was right; I was mislead by the broad pale buff tips to the wing coverts, and made the schoolboy error of not checking them against other features (which I will mention below).
Of all the snipes I’ve been able to age in Malaysia, none have been juveniles, but, if they do occur, I would expect them to have significantly differently-patterned coverts.
So, wing covert pattern is a good starting point, but other factors also need to be considered.
The overall ‘jizz’ of Common Snipe is usually quite distinctive. They are typically slimmer, sleeker-looking birds than Swintails, with a noticeably longer bill, and brighter, richer, more contrasty plumage colouration. The head looks small, and the forehead slope is normally shallow as it leads to the bill, often giving them a ‘snouty’ expression.
The overall richer and more contrasting plumage colour is evident on this Common Snipe compared to the Swintail behind.
Swintail Snipes usually look paler, more buff and with less contrast between dark and light areas.
Consistent with the more contrasty plumage, Common Snipe typically shows a darker cheek line, blacker lateral crown stripes and broader, darker loral line than Swintail.
The pale buff supercilium usually gives the impression of being more ‘bulging’ between the eye and the bill on Swintail than on Common.
The lower row of scapulars on Common Snipe are typically darker-centred than those of Swintail (though there is considerable variation in this feature), and only the outer web of each feather has a pale buff edge.
On Swintail, the lower row of scapulars have extensively chestnut centres and there is a buff edge to both webs of each feather.
With reasonable views, Common Snipe is relatively easy to distinguish from Swintail.
The underwing coverts are mostly white and unbarred, and the axillaries only lightly barred on Common Snipe.
On Swintail, both the axillaries and the underwing coverts are heavily barred. Additionally, the more extensive flank barring makes the white belly patch smaller on Swintail than on Common.
The most obvious feature on the upperwing of Common Snipe is a prominent white trailing edge to the secondaries. The flight feathers are blacker, the wing coverts less contrastingly pale, and the wing shape is sharper, less rounded than that of Swintail Snipe.
Snipe often call in flight, so knowing their calls can be a useful ‘short-cut’ to identifying them. Common utters a relatively low-pitched, grating skaap, markedly distinct from all the calls of Swintail, which, though varied, are all shorter and higher-pitched.
Common Snipe seem to prefer to forage in fresh, still water. Thus they are commonly found in wet paddyfields, but much less commonly in drier pastures, flowing streams or drains.
I haven’t mentioned the shape of the outer tail feathers since it shouldn’t be necessary to wait to see these to confirm the identity of a Common Snipe, unlike the pair I will be attempting to deal with in the next post. If you are curious about them, see this post.
I also have not explicitly mentioned how variable snipes seem to be in almost every way – plumage, size, shape, etc. I’ll talk more about that in the next post, drawing heavily on the British Birds paper by Paul Leader and Geoff Carey.
In the meantime, a puzzler. I’d be interested to know whether you think this is Common or Swintail Snipe, and why. I’m not 100% sure myself.