Western Sandpiper

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.
 Best,  Marshall

Green-winged Teal

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?

Arctic Roll

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!


About Martin Garner

I am a Free Spirit
This entry was posted in Finches, Shorebirds, Wildfowl. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Western Sandpiper

  1. jhanlon2 says:

    nice post Martin, I made the point about this tract, what you describe as a ‘line of fire’ in an attempt to divert discussion away from the shape of the lower scap markings (anchor v arrowhead) which seems to overlap an awful lot and be of limited help. I have a record shot (much poorer than yours, I’m a terrible digiscoper) which shows mantle feathers displaced by wind and just about shows the rufous line beneath – photo is on Surfbirds stop press. There may be preening shots of it by now but otherwise this seems a useful image in illustrating your first point (relating to what has to be one of the most significant features). All the best, James H

  2. andrew lawson says:

    Hi Martin,
    What do you make of the Dunge Redpoll? Pics on the DBO website.
    Cheers, Andy L

    • Martin Garner says:

      Hi Andy

      Have already commented on this is private email circular. Here’s what I said:

      “Thanks for this- a scary subject! I agree The Dungeness potential exilipes does look pretty good. The v. peaked head shape curiously is just like on some Arctics I was watching in Norway in spring. Plumage all looks OK . I am a little nervous about how isosceles triangular the undertail covert streak is, and might mark it down on that but if that is OK for exilipes then I have learnt something. Otherwise I would say it looks good. Not sure if calls could help too – maybe?!”

      Others who know the subject better than me thought it fit exilipes with a bit of caution mostly about feel of bill size and width of undertail covert streak. A final comment from me would be to avoid joining in the rush to name difficult and borderline birds as Mealy/ Common (usually out of an apparent need to pigeonhole or name every bird). It’s not right and it’s not clever ; ) !


    • Martin Garner says:

      lovely thanks Badger, moving about much more quickly than it did on Friday. Hope I can get video of that quality one day soon

  3. Hi Martin
    I saw the Titchwell redpoll on Friday 2nd Dec. When I first saw it I thought it looked good for Coue’s but after I’d watched it for a bit it showed some more Mealy-like features, especially: (1) some very warm browns in the mantle in a range of lights (but not all lights); (2) head and bill shape didn’t really match the classic ‘punched in’ shape and (3) the ground colour of the flank streaking is darker than any Coue’s I’ve seen (or could find pictures of) even for first winters. It was interesting enough to spend a bit of time on but eventually chalked it up as a well marked Mealy. Not sure of this adds to the debate or whether I’m just behind on the amount of variation in 1w Coue’s. Some photos from 02/12/2011 here http://swlondonbirding.blogspot.com/2011/12/titchwell-redpolls.html

    • Martin Garner says:

      Hi Matthew

      Thank for that. You got some very nice photos of the bird. Struggling to reply a little as I think your pics show a nice Arctic Roll. When I first saw the bird well after couple of v. brief encounters the upperparts immediately looked paler with a straw coloured component, compared to the 2 (admittedly quiet white-bodied/ white-face) Mealies. Upperparts on redpolls I think are notorious for ‘morphing’ at different angles of viewing and light. I could also see the flanks were streaked, but more broken up less tramlines and less solid and extensive than the Mealies. In Norway in the spring saw quite a few streaky flanked Arctics- not unusual I think. But especially as the other features combined, rump, undertail, mantle colour (I think) pale chammy colour on face are all so pro- exilipes. I think the bill looks fine too and in your and other pics the head shape/ bill jizz is Arctic-like to me.

      appreciate your comments nevertheless as I didn’t see it for long. Would love to be nearer for more looks at the bird. With an exilipes at Spurn last month I perhaps should be checking for redpoll flocks locally

      Cheers Martin

  4. Mark says:

    Dear Mr. Garner:
    I love the website and this post especially. When and by whom did the scientific name of the Western Sandpiper change to maura? Also I always pronounced it Coos, but I think you are right it is pronounced Cows. The redpoll that is.

    • Martin Garner says:

      Hi Mark

      Thanks for the kind remarks. I am pretty sure the clarification of the Latin will be somewhere in the archive of BOURC (British Ornithological Union Records Committee) online articles (especially from its Taxonomic Subcommittee)- though exactly where I don’t know…


  5. John Furse says:

    As a matter of interest, why ‘Cows’, instead of ‘Coos’ ? I’ve always presumed the latter, as the name appears French.

    What nationality was Coue, therefore ?

    • Martin Garner says:

      Hi John

      Sorry, don’t know the etymology. I just trusted someone who does know the subject much better than me. Was it explained on Birdforum somewhere?


  6. Hi Martin, hope you didn’t feel as soon as you went on BF you got slammed, think its just the banter on there, the discussion on the Arctic Redpoll has continued on the Norfolk Thread and has been very educational http://www.birdforum.net/showthread.php?p=2313574#post2313574

    Cheers, Pomskua

    • Martin Garner says:

      Hi Josh

      No slamming felt at all, but thank anyway. These Redpolls are always entertaining and as you say provide much learning. I will be in Norway again in early April and will try adding to my own understanding. I still think the Titchwell bird is outside much data collected on flammea and much normal looking for exilipes if at streakier end of things

      Cheers Martin

  7. John Furse says:

    Martin: I believe I’ve found the answer to my question.

    Elliott Coues (1842-1899) was a “pioneer in the recognition of subspecies”, apparently first describing Aegiothus exilipes (‘Hoary Redpoll’) from Greenland in 1861.

    His name was Norman-French and pronounced ‘coo-ays’. The family (a common name in Brittany) moved to the Isle of Wight, where this was anglicised to ‘cows’ (it’s our fault!), then to the east coast of the US in about 1735.

    This has been condensed from a Google Book Search in: http://www.amazon.com/Elliott-Coues-NATURALIST-FRONTIER-HISTORIAN/dp/0252069870

    The internet can be a wonderful place.

  8. Jeff Higgott says:

    For information here is a link to a few of my photos of the apparent Arctic Redpoll at Titchwell yesterday:
    There was much debate whilst the bird was on show as to whether it as exilipes or a pale Mealy, but this seems to be the same bird whose photos have been previously posted to the forums as ‘Arctic’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s