Mystery Bird: Wilson's Snipe, Gallinago delicata

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[Mystery bird] Wilson's Snipe, Gallinago delicata, photographed in Arizona. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]

Image: Richard Ditch, 16 March 2005 [larger view].

Date Time Original: 2005:03:16 10:19:09
Exposure Time: 1/60
F-Number: 16.00
ISO: 200

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

Rick Wright, author of Aimophila Adventures and Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:

"Start at the rear," indeed! As if this beautiful and humorous image left us any choice.

Just what do we see? A bird on the ground, largish if we compare it to the blades of grass it's perched among. The raised right foot is stout and greenish, and I think I count four unwebbed toes.

We'll come back to that tail, but the belly is unmarked white, with some sparse black barring visible on the flanks. The back can barely be seen, but what bits I can pick out are complexly and cryptically patterned.

The bird seems to be facing straight away, making the nape brown with a fine but irregular black pattern and the crown noticeably blackish, with a clearly defined median stripe. The eyes are large, dark, and set on the sides of the head.

That should be enough to identify this bird as a snipe, even with the pale-based pencil of a bill completely concealed. The tail is consistent with the identification: broad and rounded, with an orange subterminal band and white tips.

But -- and you had to know I'd ask -- which snipe? The only species recorded, or even remotely expected, in Arizona is Wilson's Snipe. Can we identify this bird rigorously, independently of geographic bias?

It's not easy. I think that I count 14 visible feathers in the conveniently spread tail; note, though, that the two outermost right-hand rectrices, the largely white ones, don't seem to have visible counterparts on the left. So the tail must have 16 feathers. Pin-tailed Snipe has at least 24 rectrices, the outermost pair conspicuously narrow (pin-like, I suppose). Common Snipe -- once considered conspecific with Wilson's -- usually has just 14 tail feathers, and the outermost pair shows only subdued patterning, unlike the crisp barring visible on this bird.

African Snipe, a species I've never seen, apparently has mostly white outer rectrices. But Magellan Snipe, another bird I'm entirely unfamiliar with, has me stymied. So I'm back to the fact that it's Arizona, it's a snipe, and I wouldn't want to be the one to have to document a non-Wilson's Snipe in the desert southwest!

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Are you sure it isn't a butterfly?

By biosparite (not verified) on 08 May 2009 #permalink

I'm thinking that might be a Wilson's Snipe, based mainly on those cool orange tail feathers that we saw when we had those stray feathers to ID a few months ago.

It's a grouse kind of thing like, ruffled grouse-ish

By 1hen2ducks (not verified) on 10 May 2009 #permalink