Field Identification

ID Challenge: Latham’s Snipe

Nial Moores, Birds Korea, April 30 2020

There are very few – if any – species groups more difficult to identify with full (or any!) confidence in east Asia than the snipes. Here in Korea, five Gallinago snipes occur regularly: Solitary Snipe G. solitaria, Common Snipe G. gallinago and the “terrible trio” of Latham’s G. hardwickii, Swinhoe’s G. megala and Pin-tailed Snipes G. stenura. To make matters worse, four of the five can sometimes even be found all together – probably!

Solitary Snipe is by far and away the easiest of the group to identify, being e.g. big, dark and very richly colored. The species is also the rarest and most locally-distributed, being largely confined to a few stretches of river in forest in winter and streams on offshore islands on migration. All the same, at least one trip report contained an image of four Common Snipe which were confidently labelled as Solitaries (leading to further mistaken claims at the same site) – suggesting that even with this species, at least some experience is required.

Solitary Snipe, ROK, December 2019 © Nial Moores

Common Snipe is the only one of the five with a strong, broad white secondary trail and a large unmarked patch on the underside of the wing, both fairly obvious in flight. They also have a subtly different scapular pattern from most Pin-tailed and Swinhoe’s (increasingly nicknamed “Swin-tailed Snipe”), with a broader pale outer edge and a narrower pale inner edge. This is also generally the most widespread and numerous Gallinago snipe in Korea.

Common Snipe. Baekryeong Island, April 28th 2020 © Nial Moores. Note the difference in width of the thicker outer and thinner pale edge of the scapulars, helpful for separating Common from most Pin-tailed and Swinhoe’s; and even at this angle, the dark looking “face” with very strong, thick black loral line.

The heart of the challenge therefore really lies with Latham’s and the two Swin-tail snipes, with most discussions on our Flyway focusing on separating Swinhoe’s and Pin-tailed (please see this paper in British Birds by Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, and see here and again here for some additional excellent commentary by ID expert Dave Bakewell). Sadly much of the commentary from Australia where Latham’s and both Pin-tailed and Swinhoe’s also winter seems to base ID on known range from banded birds and specimens. Either way, I would welcome receiving any additional papers or analysis.

Simply put, based on current knowledge many of these three snipes cannot be identified to species in field conditions with any level of confidence. Nonetheless, all three species are proven / known to be migrants through the ROK, more obviously in spring than in autumn (in part because juveniles seem to be even more difficult to ID than adults as they are generally washed through with rich brown and rust tones). Personal experience also suggests that at least many Latham’s can be identified; and that some especially small birds are very much more likely to be Pin-tailed than Swinhoe’s – at least that is if the flight calls are diagnostic.

First, their suggested status in the ROK (if identifications to date have largely been correct):

Latham’s appears to be more regular southward (was sometimes the commonest of the trio on Gageo), and seems to peak in mid-late April, though typically in low numbers of 1-3 birds per island or coastal site. I have only seen and heard one bird in display here.

Pin-tailed is much more regular northward during migration, with first birds arriving by ~April 10th, and the peak in numbers reached in late April with e.g. a high day count of 79 on Baekryeong on April 30th one year, based on calls and some displaying birds. The species is much scarcer by May 5th.

Swinhoe’s tends to be the latest to arrive, with only small numbers present in late April and a small peak in early May, with occasional birds turning up as late as mid-May or rarely even late May.

From hereon, this note looks at the ID of one individual of one species: a very well-watched Latham’s Snipe, seen on Baekryeong Island on April 29th 2020.

All the images below are of the same bird. They have been selected to explain and defend the ID.

First Impressions

Latham’s are the largest of the three and in spring tend to look quite pale (the colour of dried grasses, lacking dark greys of many Swinhoe’s). They often feed and roost away from wetlands, and perhaps because they often pick their way through grasses (?), their eyes seem to be set well high and back, in some small way recalling Eurasian Woodcock. They are broad-chested, packed with muscle for massive migratory flights between Australia and Japanese and Far East Russian breeding grounds; and they also have quite an extended, attenuated rear end. In contrast, Pin-tailed often, but not always, look quite stumpy-ended and dumpy. And to my eyes at least, Latham’s usually have a very well-patterned open, honest “face”.

Therefore, when this big pale snipe walked out of some tangled undergrowth next to a wet ditch, several Latham’s boxes were ticked right away.

Although fluffed up, this was obviously a big snipe…© Nial Moores
From the side in more normal pose, this looks too open- and pale-faced for a Common Snipe, and has a very narrow loral snipe. The bird also seems to have more extensive, stronger flank barring than might be expected in Common. The scapulars – while similar/ identical to many online images of Latham’s including on the breeding grounds – seem to show narrower inner and broader outer edges, which might be expected in a Common but not in the majority of Swin-tails. The head looks kind of square, with a steep forehead, and eyes set very high and a little “back”. The tail extends obviously beyond the tertials. In this view, the central pair of tail feathers seem to be tipped broadly white. According to Leader & Carey (2003), this would be rarely shown by Pin-tailed Snipe, but might be shown by Swinhoe’s.

Honest Face?

Studies here in Korea have suggested that strong eyebrows in people indicate an honest face (and having such broad brows myself, I am happy to endorse the claim!)- and even though there will be exceptions, many of the Latham’s I have seen during migration and on the breeding grounds in Hokkaido look “honest” in that they show strong, dark upper and slightly darker lower edges to the slightly hollowed out brown ear coverts, set in an otherwise quite “open face”. These ear coverts in turn often seem to stand out from the more speckled looking hind-nape, rather than blurring in as often seems to be the case with many Swin-tail Snipes. Like Swin-tails, and unlike most Commons, Latham’s also tend to have very thin loral lines, only thickening slightly toward the bill base. Although as Leader & Carey (2003) clarify there is much variation both within and between species, adult Swinhoe’s often seem to me to have more of a black blob at the bill base, which then looks to bleed into a dark cutting edge on the bill.

Note the cleanly patterned “face” © Nial Moores. In some Swinhoe’s, but not all!, the breast also has greyer edges in spring than this bird’s warmer brown and dark scales.

Barring

Latham’s in spring tend to look well-barred and contrasting along the flanks, lacking the convex, or more wavy looming flank bars often shown by Swinhoe’s. This bird looks very strongly striped.

Image © Nial Moores. As the bird stretches and exposes the underwings any lingering thoughts about “odd, pale Common Snipe” can be dismissed, even though there is a pale secondary trail (much less obvious looking in the field than in the image, however). The flank barring is extensive, strong, and not at all wavy; the axillaries are more wavy, with bands of black and white of almost the same width. This image suggests that the white bands on the underwing coverts might be broader in Latham’s than in Swin-tailed Snipes, with an underwing pattern in some ways intermediate between Swin-tails and Common Snipe (compare with images 138-140 in Leader & Carey 2003) and this image from Europe of Common Snipe which raises an additional question: can/ do some Common Snipe in East Asia show an underwing closer to G. delicata than birds in western Europe?

The upperwing

Latham’s and Swin-taileds share an extensive pale panel across the upper wing. To my eyes, this panel in flight usually looks rather brighter and slightly more extensive in Latham’s than might be expected in either Pin-tailed or Swinhoe’s.

Image © Nial Moores. This view of the spread upperwing – if typical for Latham’s – helps suggest why the mid-wing panel and upperwing of flying birds usually looks obviously paler in Latham’s than in Pin-tailed and Swinhoe’s. Comparing this image with Image 135 in Leader & Carey (2003) showing the spread wing of a Pin-tailed Snipe, this bird has much broader pale tips to the coverts. The alula, primary coverts and primaries also show more pale brown, giving more of a variegated pattern and browner rather than blackish impression. For a comparison with a Common Snipe, see here.

The tail

Snipes keep their tails folded and stacked up when feeding, so that the diagnostic differences in the structure of the outer tail feathers (responsible for the different noises made between species during display flights) are impossible to see well, until a bird starts to preen or stretch. Fortunately, after waiting only an hour, this bird started to preen, and exposed some – if not all – of the tail.

Image © Nial Moores. This bird showed very strongly patterned undertail coverts and a brown wash ventrally, contrasting with the otherwise bold white of the belly, Is this pattern shared by all snipes? A search of online images suggests this pattern is probably not at all unusual in Latham’s. Is it usual in Swin-tails?
Images © Nial Moores. Finally, more of the tail can be seen. According to tail patterns depicted by Osao and Michiaki Ujihara (2004), reproduced here, only Latham’s should show a combination of extensive black across the bases of the inner pairs of rectrices and one or more non-pinned shape adjacent tail feathers which are largely white with some black and orange. These same feathers are generally much more extensively dark in Swinhoe’s. In Pin-tailed, pins are immediately adjacent to the more normal-shaped black-based, largely orange tail feathers.

So this bird ticks as many Latham’s Snipe boxes as I could hope for.

Therefore, based on the bird’s apparent big size; paleness; head shape and head pattern; scapular pattern; flank barring; upperwing and underwing pattern; the parts of the tail which were visible; habitat use and date, I would identify this as a Latham’s Snipe. Seem reasonable to you? Hope so!

Comments anyone?

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