On 11 April 2014, I came across a certain area where a small flock of Swintail Snipes was gathering. It was a relatively small area of rice fields close to a new bypass which was being constructed not far away from my house. Despite the heat of summer and great distance, I managed to get some shots of the birds as seen below.
What immediately caught my attention while checking the photos that I took was the difference in head shape between the 2 birds standing side by side. As seen in the photos above, the one on the left seems to have higher crown peak, shallower forehead slope and interestingly smaller looking eyes! On the other hand, the one on the right seems to have a squarer head, somewhat a doe-eyed expression and even a slightly shorter bill.
My first hypothesis was that they were different species. I was more confident that the one on the right was a Pin-tailed Snipe because of the head shape and facial impression. Most of the Pin-tailed Snipes that I’ve identified with confident (seeing outer tail feathers) shared the same impression that this one had. So I guessed that the other one on the left could be a Swinhoe’s Snipe.
However, the only photo which shows detail of the outer tail feathers of the bird on the left somehow suggested that my hypothesis could be wrong. The photo shows 2 pin-like feathers (white arrows). One of them seems to be an intermediate-width feather and another one is clearly narrower suggesting that this bird is more likely a Pin-tailed Snipe as well! That left me clueless about why they looked so different from each other.
That night after checking the photos, I thought about how to get better photos of these birds. On the next morning, I decided to leave the house before daybreak and reached the area even before the first sunlight. However, the birds were already gathering just by the roadside and were surprised by my appearance and flew out into the farther rice fields. I used the time while they were disappearing into the fields to quickly crawl in and set up my photography hide. I waited and waited until the sun slowly broke through and then I noticed some heads poking up from the grass. It started with just one and two but in the end, I could count as many as seven altogether!
Despite the fact that I had no clue what they all were at the moment, I still enjoyed the sight of them standing, preening and stretching together among the fresh green grass covered with dew drops in the soft morning light. It was truly a lovely sight and a touching experience for me to be observing these birds in their most relaxing moment.
As the light got a little stronger, most of them began to walk down and disappear into the field. I guess they went out for breakfast. Before all of them disappeared into the field, I could manage to get a series of shots of one bird while stretching. After checking the photos closely, I’m pretty sure that it was also another Pin-tailed Snipe.
I waited patiently in the hide while the snipes disappeared into the field. About half an hour later, a pair showed up again at the far end of the ditch. I noticed that most of them seemed to be staying in pairs. I guess they might have somehow already paired up before returning to their breeding ground. Again, I noticed the differences in head shape and eye impression between two birds.
Then another bird showed up quite close to the hide. It had a strikingly pale plumage and looked more whitish than other individuals. The head looked squared, or rounded. I guessed that it was also a Pin-tailed Snipe even without seeing the outer tail feathers.
Shortly after the pale individual appeared, another bird showed up right behind it, a much more buffish individual. Then I witnessed something which finally answered my puzzling question about the head shape. As shown in the image above, the head shape can drastically change if the bird fluffs up its crown feather. In the left photo, the bird in the back seems to have higher crown peak and shallower forehead slope, while the one in front seems to have a squarer head, then in the right photo, it’s the opposite. I still can’t quite understand about the eyes though, since the first photo in this post clearly shows that one bird has smaller eyes than another. I can only guess that it’s an individual variation.
I also can’t really figure out what’s the reason for them to come up and stand in the open for so long. These snipes were almost motionless, apart from stretching and preening which happened once every 20 minutes or so. It’s also interesting to see that in the pair above, one of the birds is much paler and the other is way more buffish. This could simply be an individual variation or could be something related to sex or age. We really need more studies on these birds.
Finally, I could get to see the full outer tail feathers of the pale individual as it decided to stretch before talking into the field again. Now I can confidently identify it as a Pin-tailed Snipe.
I waited as the sun began to get stronger and stronger, then another bird showed up at the far end of the ditch. It came up to sunbath shortly, but a pair of White-breasted Waterhen wouldn’t stop getting in my way. I could only get 1 photo which shows the outer tail feathers while sunbathing, but I can’t be sure if it’s a Pin-tailed or Swinhoe’s Snipe.
Then as the sun got strong enough to dry out all the dew drops on the grass, the snipes showed up altogether again. This time even closer.
I could also get some photos of the pale Pin-tailed Snipe while bending its upper mandible upward. The action is called rhynchokinensis which is the ability to flex the upper mandible and can be found mainly in waders. This strange ability allows waders to catch their preys without having to plug their bill out of the mud. While resting, it’s also essential for them to stretch the bill as well.
Another set of stretching photos of the pale individual. Some outer tail feathers can also be seen if you look closely.
Some of them were clearly more active in preening than in the early morning. I’ve noticed that snipes are sunlight lovers. They love sunbathing and preening under the sun. Another doe-eyed individual which came up to preen shortly also turned out to be a Pin-tailed Snipe as well.
Another interesting thing I noticed while observing this flock of snipes was that the leg colour seemed to vary greatly among individuals. Some had brighter yellowish legs while some had duller or more greenish legs. I have no idea what causes the difference, probably age, sex, hormones, etc. I suggest this characteristic should be taken out from the Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe identification features.
Too bad, I couldn’t get any clear photo of the outer tail feathers of the buffish individual.
Then something exciting happened as a Chinese Pond Heron came landing right among the flock of the snipes. They all got nervous and crouched with their tail cocking up. I was hoping that they’d fan their tails enough for me to see the outer tail feathers but I wasn’t that lucky.
A video clip showing the nervous flock of snipes while encountering a larger pond heron.
Here again, the snipes were disturbed by the ugly heron. I still have some more photos of the snipes and other birds taken on the same day from the hide though, but I guess I will have to leave them for the next post as this is already getting too long.