and Coues’s Arctic Roll thrown in
Very enjoyable day in Norfolk y’day (9th December 2011). Early doors at Cley, Norfolk, beautiful sun, freezing winds and tad frustrating to start. Plenty birds but I only saw target American Peep v. briefly with Dunlin at distance and 2-3 times in flight. Meanwhile a whole plethora of other birds in freezing winter sunshine kept me wonderfully entertained. Skeins of Brent, a lone 1st winter Russian White-front, Water Pipit, Short-eared Owl (attacked by young Peregrine), tons of duck and waders, a single drake Green-winged Teal., Bearded Tits calling. Not a bad couple of hours.
Finally the sandpiper showed up: Simmond’s Scrape, pretty close, lovely light. A few bits struck me. P.S. All the Western photos are mine, taken on 9th December 2011- and I am sorry they are softy and fizzy and well- very poor. They at least show roughly what I saw on the day.
- Fire feathers! It was possible to see rufous –orange fringed rear scapulars in the field; on both sides. Further, a row of tiny ‘fire feathers’ along the edge of the mantle ‘triangle’. Mostly obscured by upper scapulars, every so often I could see a row of small feathers tucked under the big 1st winter grey scapulars that were also orange fringed. A line of fire! Guessing these are small uppermost scapulars? Certainly the presence of these ‘fire feathers’ (rufous/ orange fringed) is very pro- Western. In old money the presence of these contrasting with grey wing coverts was pretty much a guarantor of ‘maura’ (mauri back then!). Well it has ‘em.
- Old juvenile wing coverts not strikingly one species of the other. Difficult to determine fine pattern details in the field. Some fresh juvenile Westerns seem to have more obvious long shape to coverts with more squiggly (upper) edged and pointed subterminal marks. Couldn’t see that. Seemed to be bit of warm golden- yellowed effect to edges of some old juvenile coverts.
- Head and bill looked very Western. Rather pallid looking streaked crown and ear coverts definitely appeared paler than crown. Darker lines running down forehead to bill base and though lores were obviously thin. Thus paler headed, lots of white in fore-supercilium, not really looked dark-capped or with dark ear coverts.
- Area of head adjacent to bill based often looked ‘pulled out’, like it had ‘pursed lips’. Specifically feathering abutting base of lower mandible protruding forward of feathering at base of upper mandible. This more exaggerated than same thing in Semi-P. Together with bill length and shape gave a ‘feel’ I had seen before in juvenile Westerns in N America (just an impression but feel sure it will get slated!)
- Bill rather long, deep base, tapering to clearly fine tip always looked slightly kinked or decurved. Got regularly corrupted by wet, gloopy, liquid mud.
- Breast sides head slightly more marked streaks (almost like there were little arrowheads mixed in)
Using ‘old money’ characters of Western Sandpiper (without 1000 caveats) this seemed to fit the bill nicely. However when the bird was further away and little more hunkered in, trying to imagine I had seen it for the first time, I would not have been able to tell it from a Semipalmated Sandpiper. No way. Seems I was also very fortunate, as enjoying the company of James Mc Callum, he commented that, though he had watched it a lot, he thought it gave its most convincing ‘look I am a Western Sandpiper’ show as we were watching it. Presumably a result of lighting, proximity etc. Apparently when strongly overcast the crown and especially ear coverts morph to much more dark and contrasty. Great find Mark, and fully appreciate it has been a lot harder for finder and I.D. co-workers than me doing some dirty twitching and then waffling on here. Excellent learning.
Postcard from America
Marshall Iliff is a top North American birding geezer. He kindly sent these comments on the Cley bird:
“It looks to me perfectly good for Western Sandpiper.
First, the bill seems long and decurved even for our longest-billed eastern Semipalmated Sandpipers, which constantly throw people off here in the Northeast US. Obviously identifying them by bill length/shape along is perilous, but this one seems like it might be beyond the overlap zone. Certainly consistent with Western and well beyond most Semis.
Second, the really white face and breast of this bird is classic Western. Often it is the whiteness of the breast and head that helps us pick out the Westerns, since almost all juv Semipalmateds are tan/brown washed through the head and breast.
Third, I agree with your assessment of the bright scaps. These should only be seen on Western. Some Semis can be very bright (causing stint issues on this side of the pond), but not like this.
Late Semipalmateds that I have seen (into early Nov) are always still in full juv plumage. I’d be surprised if a Semi would be this advanced in the north of the Tropics in December, but then, I’ve never seen one in December. Granted, juvenile Westerns get first-winter scaps in September typically and are well along in October. I essentially have never seen a juv Semipalmated molting a significant number of scaps (or any other feathers) here in the Northeast US, where they occasionally linger to early November.
Fresh Western in Sep — http://www.flickr.com/photos/ryser915/6113268798/
Fresh Semi still in late Oct — https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/BIV0DvGjzJzNiPf4F_CkBQ?feat=embedwebsite
Tying migratory behavior into trans-Atlantic vagrants is tricky business, of course, but given how completely Semipalmateds withdraw from North America for winter (one or two birds wintering in Florida is big news, and other than that I can only think of one December bird for the US (in Texas) and it had a major tumor that surely prevented migration). I would expect vagrant Semipalmateds to not occur much late than early Nov, while I would think Westerns could winter anywhere in Europe (they winter occasionally in New England, and regularly north to New Jersey).
When confronted with real problem birds, I always try to get a call note or two, which is the clincher.
But for this one, I’d be perfectly comfortable with Western.
Drake Green-winged Teal, (left) Cley, 9th Dec. 2011. The presence of some brown patterned upper flank feathers made me wonder whether it was a 1st winter male?
Then onto to Titchwell RSPB. Shame I missed the chance of catching up with old Norfolk buddies in the morning. They had opted for Redpoll early. I got there mid afternoon. Again a little hard work but eventfully got good views of Coues’s (pronounced ‘Cow’s’) Arctic Redpoll. White rump, upperparts more strawberry blonde than brown, single thin dark undertail coverts streaks, puffy face and streaked flanks yes, but lacking the length and deep pigment of Mealy’s. In addition 2 well marked Mealy Redpoll and one subtle one, I think, with the Lessers. Same Arctic Roll here and here.
Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, (probably a first winter with that plumage), Titchwell, Norfolk, 9th Dec. 2011. © Andy Stoddart. Thanks to Mr. S. for these and frankly all he’s taught me about redpolls in last, hmmm…. lot of years!