Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata, remains were found under a spruce stand adjacent to an open spring-fed pond in the mountains near Canmore, Alberta, Canada (about an hour west of Calgary). [short of microscopic examination of these feathers or DNA analysis, this bird will probably never be definitively identified, sorry]

Image: Marcel Gahbauer, 20 December 2008 [larger view].

Scanned, not photographed.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

The story behind [this picture] is that I found these feathers below a tree during one of this year’s Christmas Bird Counts, but it was so cold my camera wouldn’t work, so I collected a sample and scanned them at home … but still haven’t been able to figure out what they came from. I suspect it’s probably too “out there” for what you want, but just in case, I’ll attach the image – it certainly would be great to receive some expert input on it!

Review all mystery birds to date.


  1. #1 Bob O'H
    January 28, 2009

    How can we start at the tail with that?

    It isn’t a tern, anyway.

  2. #2 Albatrossity
    January 28, 2009

    Looks like a grouse to me. Ruffed Grouse probably occurs in that part of Alberta, but there could be other candidates. I’d take the feathers to a museum with a good skin collection and consult with the curators there.

  3. #3 John Callender
    January 28, 2009

    Wow. This is a different. I think I need some more help before hazarding a guess. I’m going to treat this as a marathon, rather than a sprint. 🙂

    There’s actually a lot of information here, making me feel like a pretty solid ID should be possible.

    * We’re talking winter in the Canadian Rockies. I think that means we can exclude all pelagic species, as well as all non-year-round residents. That doesn’t leave too many birds.

    * The general color pattern of the plumage helps eliminate a bunch more. I can’t find a woodpecker with these colors on it, for example. Crows and ravens are right out. And so on.

    * The size of the feathers should allow us to set some pretty firm upper and lower boundaries for the size of the bird. I’m not very experienced with this, though, and would appreciate some input from someone who is.

    * The colors and patterns on various of the feathers (assuming we can correctly place the feathers on the bird’s body) should help us zero in on a candidate, given the other points working in our favor.

    In terms of the individual feathers, for ease of reference, I’m going to assign numbers, working from left to right, and going top to bottom in cases where two feathers are ambiguously close in left-to-right terms. So, that gives us the following (with my guesses as to what kind of feather each is):

    1. A fairly worn, relatively small primary

    2. A relatively small secondary with prominent chestnut markings near the tip

    3. (up high, oriented horizontally) Unknown body feather

    4. Unknown longish feather with down near the base

    5. Tail feather (?) with lots of barring

    6. Long-quilled, curved feather, plain gray, no markings

    7. Relatively short body feather

    8. Relatively short body feather

    9. Long feather with an odd S-curve

    10. (up high) Unknown body feather

    11. (down low) Unknown body feather

    12. Relatively long secondary

    13. Relatively long primary

    In terms of preliminary guesswork, I could see all of the following being candidates based on range, date, and plumage. I could use some help in narrowing down based on size.

    * spruce grouse
    * blue grouse
    * ruffed grouse
    * great-horned owl
    * barred owl
    * saw-whet owl
    * western screech owl
    * northern pygmy owl

    In terms of size, which of these makes sense? I realize it shows the extent of my feather-measurement ignorance that I’d consider both a pygmy owl and a great horned owl; obviously one (or both) of those is way off in terms of size.

    Any other birds that should be considered candidates?

  4. #4 Michael
    January 28, 2009

    Okay, it’s too big to be a passerine and the season rules out most of the breeding birds of the Calgary region. The lovely contrasting bars on so many of the feathers suggests a gallinaceous bird – Albatrossity (#2) seems to be on the right track. Strengthening the case for for RUGR is the relative of abundance of this species on the Canmore CBC.

    But I’ve marveled at the rich beauty of a dozen or more RUGR specimens in the hand. Now, when I happen upon a lone RUGR feather in the forest, it triggers instant recognition in my pattern-seeking brain. ‘Not the case here.

    Note the feathers were found in a “spruce stand”….hmmmm….

    Without access to a skin collection, I searched out Spruce Grouse on Flickr and came up with this

    The hues and patterns seem to match quite well.

    I’ll go with Spruce Grouse although if I had access to a good skin collection, I’d want to look at younger Dusky (Blue) Grouse as well.

  5. #5 Jerry Friedman
    January 28, 2009

    The Feather Atlas may come in very handy. I can tell you it’s not a female Dusky Grouse. I don’t have time to check all the possibilities right now, though. Unfortunately, they don’t have Spruce Grouse, but they do have Ruffed.

    Great Horned Owl feathers are very distinctive to the touch—soft and fluffy—and I imagine many other owl feathers are too. If these are owl feathers, Marcel Gabhauer quite possibly could have told us. Then again, maybe it’s a better puzzle if we don’t get that information, just as we don’t get the calls of those pesky flycatchers.

  6. #6 Michael
    January 28, 2009

    I posted a minute ago, confidently nominating Spruce Grouse. But I had a niggling doubt.

    I take it all back.

    I scanned the Canmore CBC list once more and paused on a bird that doesn’t come first to mind when one considers winter in Alberta – Wilson’s Snipe. At least one has been seen on each of the last six CBC’s.

    A snipe hunt on Flickr turned up a number of images showing very distinct rusty-barred retrices – two of which appear in the collection above.

    This one is the most damning

    and then there’s this

    There seems to be a good match for all of the feathers in question.

    Wilson’s Snipe. The prosecution rests. Unless I come up with another idea the moment after I hit “post”.

    Thanks for the quiz.

  7. #7 Michael
    January 28, 2009

    Please insert the following as the penultimate sentence in my last post supporting Wilson’s Snipe.

    The habitat – “spruce stand adjacent to an open spring-fed pond” – perfectly describes where one would expect to find a winter snipe in the Rockies.

  8. #8 Jerry Friedman
    January 28, 2009

    Cleverly argued, Counselor. Another exhibit for the prosecution: snipe in flight. This shows two barred outer primaries with extra-wide light spots near the tip—John’s feather 5? And are you thinking his feathers 4 and 7 are scapulars?

    If we’ve got both wing and tail feathers here, there’s an interesting pattern of extra-wide light-colored bars, making spots, near the tips of both.

    Unfortunately, there are no Charadriiformes images at the Feather Atlas.

  9. #9 Kimball Garrett
    January 28, 2009

    In length, width, shape, color and patterning, these feathers match those from our flat skins of Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) almost perfectly. This applies to the rectrices, tertials,scapulars and flank feathers that are visible in the image. I don’t have the specimen material handy to rule out other species of snipes, such as Common Snipe (G. gallinago), but obviously any species other than Wilson’s is highly unlikely.

  10. #10 Al G
    January 28, 2009

    I think you can rule out snipe by the long length of the primaries. I’ll go with Barred Owl

  11. #11 John Callender
    January 28, 2009

    Wow. You folks are good.

    As it happens, a few months ago I was taking a walk and came across a dead Wilson’s snipe, and snapped a photo with my phone. There are definitely some close matches to these feathers. In particular, those rectrices (that I was calling secondaries) seem to me to match the tail of my dead bird really well.

    Kimball: For purposes of my education, would you be willing to say which of the feathers in the image are which (rectrices, tertials, scapulars, and flank feathers)? Thanks.

  12. #12 Michael
    January 28, 2009

    Jerry, I think feather 5 is a tertial and 4 and 7 may be scapulars, as you suggest. Maybe 6 is a secondary.

    Al, I don’t see anything I’d call a primary.

    John, your cell phone image nicely shows the black-barred rusty tail feathers.

  13. #13 Michael
    January 28, 2009


    The increments on the ruler are in centimetres, not inches, thus ruling out the larger candidates we’ve mentioned.

    The post by Kimball (the museum curator) clinches the snipe verdict.

  14. #14 Marcel Gahbauer
    January 28, 2009

    Wow – what a great discussion! As John noted, the list of all potential candidates in winter in the Canadian Rockies is quite modest, and most of those can be easily ruled out … so I too ended up considering grouse and owls as reasonable options.

    By habitat, location, and size, Northern Pygmy-Owl seemed the most likely at first … but then I had the good fortune to band one last week and realized the wing feathers were all wrong (plus the rusty tone to some of the feathers I collected had always seemed a poor fit).

    Ruffed Grouse seemed like a better fit for colour and pattern, but as Michael noted, their feathers are distinctly recognizable – and these just didn’t match that mental search image.

    I briefly considered all the other grouse and owls suggested above, and ruled them out by range/habitat/plumage. But I admit that’s where I let the mental block get me. Perhaps because the high that day was -26 Celsius (-14 F), the possibility of a shorebird never crossed my mind. But now that Wilson’s Snipe has been suggested, it looks like a great match – especially the rectrices, but most of the others fit perfectly too. Definitely a rare bird there in winter (there haven’t been any reported on the past 6 Christmas Bird Counts, although small numbers were fairly regular over the two previous decades).

    Thanks to all for the great detective work!

  15. #15 Jim
    January 28, 2009

    Sage grouse has black tail with russet edging.

  16. #16 Jim
    January 28, 2009

    Spruce Grouse extends into Canada quite a way… and is only one with black tail with russet edging. Otherwise, I give up… some never-before-seen-in-North-America bird?

  17. #17 Jim, retracting
    January 28, 2009

    Posting my “guess” #16 BEFORE reading the others, having known Kimball for awhile, I go with his conclusion; and, those photos referenced by others are conclusive. Thanks, please DO SOME MORE LIKE THIS ONE, or tails of birds going into bushes, or odd angles!

  18. #18 "GrrlScientist"
    January 28, 2009

    i am pleased to see how interested everyone has been in this particular mystery bird, and i have really enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts and comments. i shall endeavor to find more “weird” mystery birds for you to identify, but please, if anyone reading out there has some “weird” mystery bird images to share, do contact me!

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