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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Long-tailed Rosefinches in Beijing

As readers might have noticed, I take every opportunity to rave about the birding in Beijing. One of the reasons is because there is so much opportunity for discovery.  The last few weeks have proved this again.

Until now, Beijing birders had presumed all the LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀), occasionally seen in the capital in winter, are from the population breeding in NE China, Russia and Mongolia (the ussuriensis subspecies).  We don’t see many, and it was only after Paul Holt and I recently visited Wuerqihan, northern Inner Mongolia, where Long-tailed Rosefinches are common, that sharp-eyed (and sharp-eared!) Paul Holt suspected that the birds I had photographed and sound-recorded at Lingshan in October 2014 and November 2015 were of a different subspecies.

2014-10-31 Long-tailed Rosefinch fem, Lingshan
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, Beijing, 31 October 2014.  Note the heavy and contrasting streaking and relatively thin wingbars.

2014-11-25 Long-tailed Rosefinch male, Lingshan
Male Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, 25 November 2014.  Note the contrasting head pattern, including the prominent dark stripe running behind the eye, and the brownish wings contrasting with the pink underparts.

2015-11-09 Long-tailed Rosefinch fem, Lingshan
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, Beijing, 9 November 2015. Again, note the relatively thick and contrasting streaking on the underparts.

To compare, here are a couple of photos of the northeastern ussuriensis subspecies, the only race previously presumed to occurr in Beijing, taken in the Dalian area of NE China, courtesy of Tom Beeke.

Long-tailed Rosefinch 35vfvhj3
(young?) Male Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp ussuriensis.  Note the lack of an obvious dark stripe behind the eye, less contrasting head pattern and less contrast on the wings.

Long-tailed Rosefinch 333242
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp ussuriensis. Note the relative lack of contrasting streaking on the underparts, the overall ‘warmer’ look and the thicker, more prominent, wingbars.

And here is a male from Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia.

2014-12-22 Long-tailed Rosefinch male2, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia
Note the thick wingbar, lack of a dark stripe behind the eye and overall ‘frosty’ appearance.

Compare the calls of one of the Lingshan birds with a bird of the ussuriensis race from Russia :

Lingshan bird (lepidus): 

Ussuriensis from Russia (Albert Lastukhin):

After comparing photos and sound-recordings of ussuriensis with those from Beijing, it became clear that the Lingshan birds were NOT of the ssp ussuriensis.  Instead, the Lingshan birds show the characteristics (dark eye-stripe and brown wings on the male, heavy and contrasting streaking on the female) of the ssp lepidus, the race from central China (according to HBW, this subspecies ranges from Eastern Tibet, east to south Shaanxi and southwest Shanxi).

Photos prove that Long-tailed Rosefinches of the lepidus subspecies have now occured at Lingshan in October/November 2014 and again in November 2015, including adult males.  This suggests that Lingshan may be a regular wintering ground for the lepidus subspecies.

This was quite a shock.

We don’t *think* lepidus breeds in Beijing – they are active and noisy during the breeding season and there have been a few spring/summer visits by birders to Lingshan in the last 2 years, during which one would expect these birds to have been detected had they been present.  So, for the moment at least, it looks as if these birds have moved northeast from their breeding grounds, an unexpected winter movement.

We know that at least some of the few winter records of Long-tailed Rosefinch from lowland Beijing are of the northern subspecies ussuriensis. So Beijing has now recorded two ssp of Long-tailed Rosefinch.

It’s another fascinating, and unexpected, discovery from Lingshan!  What next?

Big thanks to Paul Holt for the initial discovery, to Paul Leader for comments and to Tom Beeke for permission to use his photos of Long-tailed Rosefinch from Liaoning Province.

ISABELLINE WHEATEAR – new for Beijing

Back in April 2012 I found a wheatear at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, on the shore of Guanting Reservoir.  It showed exceptionally well for about 2-3 minutes before being flushed by a Merlin and flying high to the northwest, never to be seen again.  Fortunately I was able to capture a few photos before it vanished.

Isabelline Wheatear, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012.  Isabelline Wheatear, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012.

For context, any wheatear is notable in Beijing.  Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka, 斑鵖) is the most frequent – it probably breeds occasionally in the capital in small numbers.  There is only one previous record of Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti, 漠鵖), at the same site in 2010.  Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe, 穗鵖) has not been recorded for at least 30 years.  And there were no previous records of Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙鵖).

After some consideration of the identification, it went down in my notes as Beijing’s second Desert Wheatear, a female.

Fast forward to three days ago when I received an email from Killian Mullarney, who had been searching the internet for images of female Desert Wheatear.  One of the first photos he found was mine from April 2012.  Killian, one of the authors of the Collins Bird Guide, immediately spotted that it was not a Desert Wheatear but an ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙鵖).  Very kindly he attached a series of annotated photos that explained why.  The result is that my 2012 wheatear has now been upgraded from a ‘second for Beijing’ to a first.  Not a bad trade.

Isabelline-Desert Wheatear
A comparison of Isabelline and Desert Wheatears by Killian Mullarney. Bottom photo of Desert Wheatear by George Reszeter, used with kind permission.  By the way, George’s excellent website – www.birdsofeurope.co.uk – is thoroughly recommended for superb images of European birds.

I am immensely grateful to Killian for taking the time to correct my identification.  Not only did he do so with much grace but also explained in great detail why it was an Isabelline.  Through his knowledge I have learned a lot about this difficult pair and now have no excuse to mis-identify another, if I am fortunate enough to see one..

As he says in his email,  “I picked up a copy of the Collins Bird Guide just to remind myself of how well (or otherwise) we covered the Isabelline/Desert pitfall…. Not very well, it seems! The first sentence of the Desert Wheatear IDENTIFICATION text states ‘Rather compact with comparatively big head, short neck and tail.’ Oh dear….I guess judging relative head size is a subjective thing, but it just goes to show how circumspect we all need to be with our field guides!”

Thank you Killian!