Red-necked Stint vs Little Stint

I have always struggled to separate Little Stint (Calidris minuta) and Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis). One of the reasons is that the former is rarely seen (or at least rarely identified) in Beijing, meaning that the opportunities to study Little Stint are few. But perhaps the main reason is that, without excellent views, they are hard to separate!

Last week I was fortunate to enjoy prolonged views of a group of juvenile stints at Ma Chang, on the shores of Guanting Reservoir, Yanqing County in the northwest of the capital. In the early morning light, everything looked good.. and, as I was scanning the shoreline for migrants, picking up a juvenile Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), a first calendar year Relict Gull (Ichthyaetus relictus), several Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) and 13 Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), a small group of stints flew in and landed just a few metres in front of me. Through binoculars I could see that the group consisted of mostly juvenile Red-necked Stints and one Temminck’s Stint (Calidris temminckii). Scanning carefully I saw two individuals that appeared brighter than the majority of the Red-necked Stints, more contrasting and with apparently slightly longer legs. Having my telescope with me, I lowered it, crouched down and began to look closely at these two brighter birds. I could see obvious ‘tramlines’ down the back, a more contrasting head pattern with a dark central crown and very dark centres to the lower scapulars and coverts. Could these be Little Stints? Shortly after, I took some video using my iPhone attached to my Swarovski ATX telescope, and some still photographs. As I was watching, one of the brighter birds joined a lone Red-necked Stint and, remarkably, the pair stood side by side for several seconds, allowing me to capture some video and still photographs of the two together in the same pose.

Juvenile RED-NECKED (Calidris ruficollis, left) and LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta), Ma Chang, 27 August 2019. Note the more elongated profile of Red-necked, slightly blunter bill, less contrasting crown, slightly shorter legs and less contrasting ‘tramlines’.

It seemed like several minutes that I was able to enjoy these birds at close quarters before a juvenile Peregrine flew along the shoreline, flushing the whole group.

After I returned home and looked at the images on my laptop, I was hopeful but cautious that I may have seen two juvenile Little Stints, potentially the first I have seen in Beijing. However, I was far from sure and wanted a second opinion. I sent a selection of images to Dave Bakewell in Malaysia who is an authority on shorebirds and has written extensively about identifying this tricky pair.

Dave responded very quickly to say that all of the images I had sent were of Little Stint and gave a detailed explanation as to why. These are the features of juvenile Little Stint:

  • Overall less elongated profile
  • Dark centres to the lower scapulars and coverts with clearly demarcated fringes;
  • Well-streaked neck sides;
  • Dark central crown;
  • Fine-tipped bill;
  • Relatively contrasting ‘tramlines’ on mantle
  • Long tibia and tarsi;
  • “Ball-shaped” body and small head

I’ve edited the video clips and compiled the short video below, showing the two side by side. I hope it’s instructive.

RED-NECKED (Calidris ruficollis) and LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta) together at Ma Chang, Beijing, 27 August 2019. Note Little Stint is on the right in the first segment and on the left in the second.

Big thanks to Dave Bakewell for sharing his knowledge of this tricky pair. Anyone interested in the identification of stints should see his excellent website and videos on YouTube.

Title image: Red-necked (left) and Little Stint side by side at Ma Chang, 27 August 2019 (Terry Townshend)

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