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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An Educational Sandplover

During my aborted trip to the Hebei coast last week, one of the birds with which I enjoyed a close encounter was this juvenile sandplover.  The recovery from my appendectomy gave me some time to examine the photos and video to try to work out the identification.  I found this bird tricky.  It wasn’t particularly long-legged, the ‘bulge’ on the culmen wasn’t very pronounced (suggesting Lesser) but the overall gait – including the horizontal stance – suggested Greater.  I was confused.  So I sent this image to Dave Bakewell who has lots of experience with sandplovers and has written extensively about them on his excellent Dig Deep blog.

A juvenile Sandplover at Nanpu, Hebei Province, 2 August 2014.  But which species?
A juvenile Sandplover at Nanpu, Hebei Province, 2 August 2014. But which species?

His view is that this bird is a juvenile Greater.  Why?  This is what he said:

“Not surprised you are struggling with this one! I do find that leg colour is more reliable as a feature for juvs than adults. And, although the bill may not be fully grown (affecting the proportion of the swollen culmen), I do find the tip shape very helpful – slender and more pointed on GSP and blunter on LSP. By now you will know what I think it is! Despite the apparent dumpy, short-legged, round-headed shape, I think this is a very young juv GSP.”

Just when I thought I was getting to grips with sandplovers, I encounter a bird that makes me think again…  and that’s what makes birding such a brilliant hobby – always so much to learn!

Here is some video of the same bird, just edited from footage I took last week.

Please let me know what YOU think!

EDIT: Dave Bakewell kindly sent me a link to a similar-aged juvenile Lesser Sandplover (of the atrifons group).  You can see it here.  It’s a darker plumaged bird overall with noticeably darker legs, darker centres to the coverts and showing a subtly different bill shape.

Swinhoe’s (White-faced) Plovers

When Dave Bakewell and Peter Kennerley published an article on Surfbirds called “Malaysia’s Mystery Plover” back in December 2007, it caused quite a stir in the birding community.  Was it really possible that a small plover, not described in any modern literature, was living on the beaches of southeast Asia?

The so-called “White-faced Plover” (Charadrius alexandrinus dealbatus) was first described as distinct from Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) by the great ornithologist, Robert Swinhoe, in 1870, hence the preferred usage of the name “Swinhoe’s Plover” (used in this post).

The great Robert Swinhoe (1836-1877). This photo was taken in 1863.

However, despite Swinhoe’s observations, dealbatus seems to have been ‘lost’ due to confusion about the characteristics of this form, and it has not been represented in modern field guides.  Here is an extract from a paper published in November 2011 (see reference at end of post):

“Over the past few decades, most authorities have followed Hartert & Jackson in recognizing dealbatus as a wide-ranging but morphologically indistinct East Asian subspecies of the Kentish Plover. Only recently, field observations of unusual, distinctly pale-colored plovers in the wintering grounds of the Malayan Peninsula led to the recognition that the original description of dealbatus referred to a distinctly different plover that has been overlooked for more than a century. Its name has been misapplied to birds that largely fall within the range of variation of nominate alexandrinus. True dealbatus are now known to differ not only in their much paler overall plumage, but also in important details of facial coloration in breeding plumage and a range of other traits.”

Considering this form had been ‘lost’ for many decades, Dave and Peter did an exceptional job in picking out these birds, studying them and communicating their findings to the wider birding community, causing much renewed interest in these charismatic birds and speculation that they may deserve full species status.  At the time, only wintering birds had been seen and, although some of these birds attained breeding plumage on the study grounds in Singapore and Malaysia, they soon disappeared in Spring and there was only speculation as to where the breeding grounds might be.

Following publication of Dave and Peter’s article, Chinese/HK birders reported breeding Swinhoe’s Plovers on the beaches of Fujian Province in 2008.  Later, one of my friends and fellow China-based British birder, Brian Jones, moved from Beijing to Shenzhen in 2011 and soon began to explore the coast nearby.  It wasn’t long before Brian discovered some ‘strange Kentish Plovers’ breeding on sandy beaches at Dahu, Haifeng.  Having taken some images, Dave and Peter soon confirmed that Brian had stumbled on a breeding site for Swinhoe’s Plover on China’s southern coast.. On just two beaches, Brian found around 270 of these ‘rediscovered’ birds, many with young.  They have since been found at several sites in southern and southeastern China, and are now known to breed from Hainan to Fujian Province.

One fortunate coincidence for any birders going to see Chinese Crested Terns near Fuzhou is that several pairs of these plovers breed on the beaches nearby. During my visit last week we counted 5 pairs along a small stretch of beach..  the real number breeding there is surely much higher.  This was my first opportunity to see this distinctive bird and I was pleased to see the presence of advanced juveniles, as well as males and females.  Here are a few images:

Swinhoe’s Plover (male), near Fuzhou, Fujian Province, July 2012.  Note the pale lores, pale legs and the ‘milky tea’ colour of the upperparts.
Swinhoe’s Plover (male), near Fuzhou, Fujian Province, July 2012
Swinhoe’s Plover (worn male). Note the extensive white on the inner primaries.
Swinhoe’s Plover (worn male). Note the extensive white in the tail and the relatively prominent wingbar.
Swinhoe’s Plover (female), near Fuzhou, Fujian Province, July 2012

Of course, there is a question as to whether or not these birds are a separate species.  They are certainly distinct – longer, paler legs, more white on the face, more white in the wing etc (see Dave and Peter’s article for the full suite of features) – but initial studies of DNA (taken from museum specimens) have shown that they are not distinct enough to warrant separate species status.  This is the relevant passage from the recent study:

“The most likely conclusion of our data is that the White-faced Plover is probably a young lineage whose phenotypic traits are encoded by a limited number of genes, whereas few additional genomic differences have so far accumulated. Its diagnostic plumage traits may additionally be governed by differences in gene expression that would be undetectable by sequence analysis.”

In short, initial research suggests that “Swinhoe’s Plover” is probably a subspecies of Kentish Plover.  However, further research is ongoing.  This spring and summer Jonathan Martinez, in collaboration with Professor Fasheng Zou from the South China Endangered Animals Institute, has been ringing, colour-flagging and taking blood samples from birds on China’s southern coast.  Analysis of the DNA taken from these live birds is expected soon, although it is unlikely to return different results.  Here are some images of one of the birds being colour-flagged.  If you see any of these birds this autumn/winter, Jonathan would be delighted to hear from you and can be contacted via this blog.

One of the Swinhoe’s Plovers colour-flagged by Jonathan Martinez and Professor Fasheng Zou. If you are in East/Southeast Asia this autumn/winter, look out for flagged birds!
The same bird in the field, Guangdong Province, China.

To me, it matters little whether or not the Swinhoe’s Plover is a species or a subspecies..  it is a beautiful and charismatic bird that is a joy to watch.  It is clearly very limited in its distribution and it must, therefore, be (another!) priority for conservation.

Many thanks to Dave Bakewell, Peter Kennerley, Jonathan Martinez and Brian Jones for providing information and images included in this blog post.

Quotations above taken from:

Rheindt FE, Székely T, Edwards SV, Lee PLM, Burke T, et al. (2011) Conflict between Genetic and Phenotypic Differentiation: The Evolutionary History of a ‘Lost and Rediscovered’ Shorebird. PLoS ONE 6(11): e26995. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026995