Tuesday, January 26, 2010

26th January 2010: Kubang Semang, mainland Penang

I don't think I've seen rain this year ... till today! I decided to finish work early and skip across to the mainland for the last few hours of the day. There were some grey clouds around but that's not unusual, and they usually don't produce rain. But today, the moment I arrived at my destination, the heavens opened! I couldn't help smiling at God's sense of humour!

It rained and rained for about 2 hours. What to do in the pouring rain? Well, luckily I found a dried out patch of mud, which rapidly became a puddle, then a pool, with a bunch of snipes feeding, and then bathing in it. Using my car as a hide, I was able to watch and stay reasonably dry.

There were at least two species - Swinhoe's and Common - and by watching them preen, bathe and skirmish with each other and some Wood Sandpipers, I was able to see the tail feathers on three birds.

The light was awful, and this was taken at half a second inside a car being buffeted by the wind and rain. I didn't get too many sharp shots! Instead, I took lots of video, which was useful to check the tail when momentarily fanned. I'll include a few grabs from the videos, since Youtube isn't accepting my uploads at the moment.

So this one is either a Swinhoe's or Pintail. This pair can be differentiated from Common Snipe by:

- the lower row of scapulars having a thin buff fringe on both the outer and inner webs of the feathers

- the background colour of the scapulars being quite brown, rather than blackish

- the wing coverts (especially the medians) being well barred buff and dark before the whitish tip

- the bland face pattern, lacking a strong cheek bar

- the bulging supercilium in front of the eye

Between Pintail and Swinhoe's it's practically impossible to be certain without a good view of the outer tail feathers, but the thick-based, rather long bill, the eye set well back in the head, and the rather thick, yellowish legs are all pro-Swinhoe's characteristics. On the other hand, the very short tail projection beyond the tertials favours Pintail.

Here's a Common Snipe for comparison. Subtle differences from Swinhoe's/Pintail are:

- lower scapulars are broadly fringed buff on the outer webs only

- the background colour of the scapulars, mantle and lateral crown stripes is blacker than Swinhoe's/Pintail, making the bird look more contrasty

- the wing coverts are rather plain and dark, except for the strongly contrasting white tips

- a strong face pattern, with prominent pale and dark cheek bars

- Supercilium doesn't obviously bulge in front of the eye

- Bill is very long and rather slender, not especially thick at base.

If you are lucky to catch them even half-raising their wings, the axillaries are another useful clue. On Swinhoe's/Pintail, the black bars are about the same thickness as the white bars...

Whereas, on Common, the black bars are much narrower.

If they lift their wings even further, identification between Common and Swinhoe's/Pintal is easy - Common has a largely plain underwing, whereas on Swinhoe's/Pintail, it's evenly barred.

Snipes characteristically fan their tails when performing a threat display, and since they're quite aggressive, it's well worth spending some time watching them.

Common Snipe's tail is very obviously orange with a broad white tip. The outer tail feathers are similar in width to the central ones. Here it is exposed but not spread.

And here it is in full threat mode.

Even when completely closed, the white tip of Common's tail can be quite obvious at times.

Getting a decent view of the tail is critical to separating Swinhoe's and Pintail with certainty.

I got lucky with this one when it gave a threat display to a nearby Wood Sandpiper. It's the shape of the outer pairs of feather that you need to see well. On Swinhoe's each pair of feathers is successively narrower toward the outer edge of the tail, with only the outermost being very narrow. On Pintail, the outer six or so pairs of feathers are pin-like - hence the name. So this is a definite Swinhoe's.

Here's the same bird, unfortunately against what little light there was.

I think this is almost certainly Swinhoe's too, though the videograb doesn't let me see the shape of the outer tail feathers clearly. At least, they don't appear pin-like.

The same bird, typically much more buffy than Common, with well-barred coverts and a bland face pattern.

At last the rain stopped, and although it was too dark for bird photography, I was quite pleased with these scenic views.

Despite the rain I managed to see a number of interesting birds - an Eastern Stonechat, 6 Watercocks, a Greater Spotted Eagle, a pair of Greater Painted-snipes, oh - and this...

If you think you know what it is, let me know (I know what it is!).


Bonsaibirder said...

Looks like a wet Yellow Wagtail of some (sub)species.

Love the blog by the way!

digdeep said...

Hi there Bonsaibirder

No problem for you! I was quite 'disorientated' when I initially saw these birds - struggling even to put them into a genus at first!



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frodo said...

Hi Dave,
I could place the bird in Wagtail species but could id as whether a grey or yellow. The dark streaking on its chest is quite unusual.
I like your pointers for distinguishing Common from Swinhoe Snipes.

jytou said...

Agreed that it looks like a Yellow Wagtail, a wet one, this reminds me of the yellow wagtail in Dr Chan Kai Soon's clip....