Sunday, 11 September 2016

Looking for the palmations

When news broke last night (10th September) of a Semi-palmated Sandpiper on the south scrape at Titchfield Haven I was surprised that I hadn’t received a text from one of usual crew who circulate news, however it soon became apparent why not. There had been several reports throughout the course of the day of two Little Stints on the south scrape and one of those birds had evidently been re-identified from photos posted on the Hampshire Ornithological Society website as a Semi-p. I was planning to go ringing at the Haven in the morning so if it was still there I thought I would go and have a look. I don’t actually know how many Semi-p’s have now been recorded in Hampshire, but with the exception of one that I caught at Farlington Marshes in 1995 (then the second for the County) most have been in the west of the County at Pennington/Keyhaven. 

Adult Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Farlington Marshes 1995

There were clearly a few local birders who were a bit miffed at having overlooked this bird, but let’s face it they are tricky birds to ID and it is very easy to just take someones word that a bird is what it is and just enjoy it without really questioning its ID, I am sure most birders have done it, and will do so again. It is also quite easy to get hooked up on looking for obvious (or not so) features, such as black or pale legs on a Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler, or palmations between toes on a semi-p to separate it from Little Stint, rather than look at actual features, such as feather patterns or primary projections. But with some species there are only subtle differences and as such with limited experience they can be easily overlooked.

I was fortunate in that the bird was still present today and so after what turned out to be one on the busier ringing sessions of the season so far, the ringing team trudged over to the south scrape for a look. Initially the bird was preening on island I, but eventually it settled on the mud in the north-west corner of the scrape just in front of the hide and began to feed. I spent the first twenty minutes or so just grilling the bird, noting the short primary projection, the strongly streaked dark crown, which was sharply demarcated from the distinct supercilium, the dark ear coverts, the well defined and finely streaked side of the breast and short bill. 

Juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Titchfield Haven 2016

Juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Titchfield Haven 2016

Juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Titchfield Haven 2016

There was evidence of a slight ‘V’ on the mantel from some angles, but it was much reduced from that present on the accompanying Little Stint, and no evidence of the split supercilium, which again is usually evident on Little Stint. At times the bird was very close and yet despite my best efforts I could not make out the palmations.

For comparison a Little Stint - Farlington Marshes 2016 

As I eluded to above in many circumstances the palmations can be very difficult to see, so it is not really a feature worth looking for, unless circumstances allow. In the hand, like the bird at Farlington Marshes in 1995, they were very obvious (see below). 

Palmations of Adult Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Farlington Marshes 1995 
They were also obvious on a Western Sandpiper roosting on a rock in California that I saw in 2012. 

Western Sandpiper - California
Note the palmations and also the length and shape of the bill compared with the Semi-p

I have got one shot where it looks like a palmation is present, but with the bird feeding in soft mud they were generally difficult to make out.

Juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Titchfield Haven 2016. 
It appears just about possible to see one of the palmations on the birds left leg.

All in all it was a cracking morning with just shy of 150 birds ringed, including our first Firecrest of the autumn followed by a superb Semi-p with a Little Stint as a supporting cast.

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