When in doubt, choose the slash

During the migratory season, the Common Snipe and the Pintail Snipe occur in Chennai. They can sometimes be difficult to be told apart, unless they are seen in flight and their underwings are exposed. Photo: Sundaravel Palanivelu  

Last week, Sundaravel Palanivelu was in perplexity over a snipe. He was not sure what to call it — common or pintail.

Studying the markers from a photo he had clicked of the migratory snipe, he was up against a “six of one and half a dozen of the other” scenario.

“Really broad and in front of the eye, the supercilium looks like a pintail’s; the scapulars suggest ‘common’; with a tinge of grey, the cheeks can easily be those of a ‘common’; not long enough, the bill appears to be that of a ‘pintail’; and the coverts suggest pintail,” Sundaravel details his quandary.

Snipe watchers cannot dodge such curveballs.

Its beak shoved into its back, the bird can descend into a ball-like stillness. Together with its cryptic plumage, this posture can make it “invisible”. And curiously, when it is in clear sight, you cast around for a “name” to describe it. Tough life indeed for Common/ Pintail Snipe watchers.

Actually, the answer is out there in that line. Birders can opt for the “slash” and uncomplicate their lives, unless of course they know in their bones they are on sure ground. Ironically, for a birder to be on such a ground, the Common Snipe or Pintail Snipe should have taken off the ground, and be in flight, exposing its underwings. More on this, later.

Now, here is how eBird helps birders out of such perplexities.

Ashwin Viswanathan of Bird Count India, which offers the eBird platform for birdwatchers to record their species sightings and observations, acknowledges that together, Common Snipe and Pinatail Snipe make it to the list of difficult birds to identify.

“In some parts of the country, it is a little clearer. In western and north-western parts, it is almost only Common Snipe. So, the onus is on birders to find a Pintail Snipe. But in the rest of the country, both may occur in almost equal numbers,” says Ashwin.

Chennai falls in the rest of the country.

“eBird has ways to deal with it, which is to give birders the option of putting ‘Snipe sp’ or ‘Pintail/ Common Snipe’. Based on the area, these options may appear, but not the actual species. Because, sometimes, it is difficult to say which, in the field when you are making a checklist,” he explains.

However, when any of these two snipes — common or pintail — is in flight, they offer a peek into what they are.

“The moment you see the bird in flight, it is very easy to tell. When they are in flight you can tell from the underwing. The Pintail Snipe has an evenly barred pattern on the underwing, whereas the Common Snipe mostly has a white underwing with some pattern but not evenly-patterned. Much the Common Snipe’s underwing is just white,” explains Ashwin.

So, while making a Pintail Snipe entry, many eBirders would be inclined to make the assertion on the basis of the bird seen in flight, with its identity worn on its underwings.

“When a Common Snipe is in flight, a white trailing edge to the wings would be visible. That is the easiest thing to notice in the field,” says Ashwin. “There are ways to tell them apart when you get good views while they are sitting also: The pattern of feathers on the coverts. Looking at that pattern and the scapulars, you can tell them apart.”

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Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 1:28:59 AM |

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