19/10/2021
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Rarity finders: Long-toed Stint in West Yorkshire

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The Long-toed Stint at St Aidan's RSPB, West Yorkshire, has been the most popular bird of the autumn so far. Here, Steve Cribbin, David Hunter and, latterly, Julian Pickering tell the story behind the stunning discovery.

I have been visiting St Aidan's RSPB several times a week during the last couple of years, but it was only because family plans changed at the last minute that I was there at 4 pm on Friday 8 October. I arrived at the Eastern Reedbed to find Julian Pickering, Mike Pullan and a few others 'scoping and photographing a small wader some 75 m away. It was approximately two-thirds the size of a Dunlin with pale, possibly yellow legs and a fine straight bill. Their consensus at the time was that it was probably a Temminck's Stint – which would be a very good bird for the patch.

My two-and-a-half years of watching and photographing birds have taught me quite a lot, but identifying less common species in the field is still a struggle for me so I rely on others a bit. I concentrate on getting the photos, studying the images on my computer and then spending hours comparing them to the details in my few books and reliable internet sources. I then try to arrive at an (often wrong) ID, which might take the experienced birders minutes to get right.

I could see that the bird was going to be of great interest to my fellow members of the Swillington Ings Bird Group (SIBG), so I had to make sure that I got a good record of it. The two key lessons, learnt from previous failings and important that evening, were to take plenty of photographs and not to rely on the autofocus system when the conditions are difficult. The sun was starting to go down on the far side of the reedbed, leaving the very small and quite distant bird backlit against a busy background.


The stint was found late afternoon on Friday 8 October, which is when Steve took a number of initial record shots, including the above (Steve Cribbin).

The autofocus on the latest mirrorless cameras are amazing but still have limits, so I used manual focus for the 727 photos that I took over the next hour. I also captured 30 seconds of 4K video, in case the bird's behaviour became critical to the ID. Using the 15x magnification to check manual focus in the electronic viewfinder is very difficult, especially when handholding with an 800 mm lens, but it was successful most of the time. The images were all taken in a manual exposure mode at the fixed aperture of f/11, with a shutter speed of 1/400 sec and with the ISO varying from 320-800.

The others left somewhat surprised that nobody else had shown up in response to the notification that was believed to have been sent, but was never actually delivered. Unfortunately, this denied the more experienced group listers the chance to view the bird for longer in better light. I checked my phone and couldn't see any message relating to the bird so sent one out on the SIBG WhatsApp group regarding a probable Temminck's Stint (others' ID) and that I was now waiting alone, hoping to get more help.

I showed some back-of-the-camera images to the first group members who arrived, some 20 minutes later, and then left for home to process my images from the RAW files. It was gone 7 pm when I got onto my computer to work on the images and within half an hour the SIBG website reported that the bird’s ID had changed to Least Sandpiper.

I was getting emails and calls chasing up my images. I had to crop, pixel for pixel, from the 45MP original down to around 600x420 (0.25MP) to be tight on the bird. I sent 20 of the best images to SIBG email address, for distribution to the members assessing the ID, at about 8.30 pm with the comment "I know that it is totally unlikely, but I would have gone for a first-winter Long-toed Stint – can always dream".


Long-toed Stint, St Aidan's RSPB (Swillington Ings), West Yorkshire (Steve Cribbin).

I received a reply at 10.40 pm advising that the assessment, based on the photographs and backed up by confirmation from BirdGuides, was that it was indeed a Long-toed Stint. It was only later that I appreciated how rare this was and the interest that it would create. I struggled to sleep that night and was back on site at 6 am. It was a massive relief when the stint flew back onto the Eastern Reedbed mudflats at 8.20 am that Saturday morning, in decent light and in front of a large audience. Over the next week of its stay, several thousand people managed to get this bird for their various lists and have taken some amazing photos and videos.

Steve Cribbin

 

The message from Steve Cribbin of a possible Temminck’s Stint reached the Swilly regulars at 5 pm on 8 October and several of us arrived over the next half hour: Rob Parsons, Peter Griffin, Dave and Rob Hunton, Mike Barnett, Graham Leach and I. Paul Morris, who is the Leeds area bird recorder, arrived later in rapidly fading light.

Temminck's was ruled out by the strong supercilium, a rather weak breast band and primaries that finished level with the tail, so the bird was clearly either a Least Sandpiper (LS) or a Long-toed Stint (LTS). It was very settled and so wasn't seen in flight. It didn't look particularly long legged or long necked and, for the most part, was feeding with a hunched posture, although on several occasions was seen to run with a more upright posture.

Although the light was not ideal the bill appeared wholly black, straight and thin (my subsequent reading suggests that it is always slightly curved in LS and may also sometimes appear slightly curved in LTS, although usually straight) and the bill base was not paler (a characteristic feature of LTS and the later photos failed to show this as a feature as well). In the field the feet looked big, but views were not adequate to gauge the length of the middle toe.


The Long-toed Stint, a moulting adult, illustrated quite a contrast between its fresh, grey winter scapulars and worn, retained coverts (David Carr).

We all left at roughly 6.50 pm. The consensus at that time was that it was probably a Least Sandpiper. This seemed reasonable at the time considering the number of North American waders that had turned up over the preceding weeks. Graham Leach informed BirdGuides, who responded with a request for photographs. It was a little while later before these were available. Apparently, Julian had seen the bird in flight and had told Rob P that he was fairly sure it was a LTS as the feet appeared to project on a single flight view.

At around 8.15 pm the first photo from Mike Pullan arrived and showed a rather lanky appearance, though no suggestion of a long neck. At around this time I circulated a short video clip of the bird. In the rush to get there no one had brought a camera, but I had managed to phonescope five minutes of video. The head-on appearance showed the dark crown went right down to the bill – Rob Hunton immediately felt that the bird was a LTS because of this. 

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Steve's photos were circulated about an hour later and opinion was divided despite a lively online discussion. The final bit of the story is that, at approximately 10.15 pm, Graham sent Steve's photos to BirdGuides with the majority group view that it was a LTS. Within a couple of minutes the bird had been mega-alerted as a LTS, after the BirdGuides team confirmed our suspicions.

The following day, with good views in clear light – not to mention a review of the field guides – the identity of the bird was clearly that of Long-toed Stint.

David Hunter

 


The Long-toed Stint generated one of the biggest twitches seen in Britain in years (Sam Viles).

It was a warm sunny day at St Aidan's and, by 1 pm, I'd already had a look on Astley Lake and seen the usual variety of birds. Surprisingly there was nobody about and continued along the middle path through the reedbeds, a scan of which revealed a Ruff and a small wader on the near mud. Reeds obscured the view somewhat and because I carry my 'scope in a rucksack, I nearly didn't bother.

Viewing was hampered but I saw a long and yellow-legged bird with short bill on a longish neck with a supercilium of sorts and plumage that didn't look wrong for Pectoral Sandpiper. I looked for and found a breast band too. I looked for help, pointed the bird out to some passers-by but then it disappeared. I searched both reedbeds without luck.

I met Bert van de Ven, Craig Kenyon and Mike Pullan and none of them had heard of a Pectoral Sandpiper on site. We went to the Eastern Reedbed and saw it straight away, but it was distant so we relocated. Again, it was viewable either through reeds or from further away and sometimes obscured. After viewing for some time problems with the ID arose – the pectoral band was extra pointy, had marks on it and flecks below; not the clean line expected. 

Bert thought the band wasn't bold enough. He had seen Pectoral Sandpiper on site earlier in the autumn, but as none of us could come up with a better suggestion the ID was kept. A Pectoral Sandpiper demonstrating some plumage variation seemed the more likely option. Perhaps a lesson – it's not always the most likely option that's right.

The bird flew again. As it did so, with Northern Lapwings, it called. I now know this as the prrrp call. At the time, I remember Bert saying previously he'd heard a distinctive call when the Pectoral Sandpipers were around – he looked it up and reckoned it matched.


Long-toed Stint, St Aidan's RSPB, West Yorkshire (Steve Cribbin).

I got to the viewpoint first, found the bird with Dunlin and was stunned at how small it was. A stint with yellow legs has to be Temminck's and as the others arrived I said so.  A long period of observation followed during which it had a fly round. More detailed study was now possible. It waded in shallow water, thin mud and walked on raised ground. I can't speak for the others, but the excellent views allowed me to observe some interesting features.

As the bird moved around the long tibia was obvious and made the bird look tall for a stint. The wings ended level with the tail, the feet looked as long as the tarsus (especially when it lifted it from mud) and in flight, while initially the feet had dangled, I was convinced they had had protruded beyond the tail.

Passers-by joined the group. Mike got out a pocket guide and it presented a problem – the general appearance didn't match Temminck's, chiefly to the long tibia. The protruding feet made me more secure in pointing out the long tibia to all those close enough. I was quite vocal in pointing this out and remember saying "it's either Temminck's or it's silly rare." I might have been a bit giddy when I said it!

While happy that Temminck's Stint was sent out I knew it didn’t match observations, but I couldn't come up with an alternative and nobody else suggested anything. At some point phones came out, but it appears the message didn't send. Steve Cribbin arrived and joined Mike taking pictures in good light – no need for a description now! After some time, no serious birders had come and people had started to drift off.

Mike and I were some of the last to leave. I returned to the hide and found a Swillington Ings Bird Group member. I told him of the Temminck's and he was rightly perturbed that it hadn't gone out on the web. Just before he went out the door, I looked Collins Bird Guide on the stint page and, in blissful ignorance of the significance, picked the one that matched observation to the illustrations: the long-legged wader, long tibia and protruding feet all things seen. Politely and dismissively, he told me "that'd be mega" and left.


The length of the toes compared to the tarsi and tibia can be appreciated here (Steve Cribbin).

I went back to the Eastern Reedbed. After a short time, there was a group of other birders: Rob Parsons, Dave Hunton and Peter Griffin. The sun had dropped and gone behind cloud so the light had got worse. The new discussion favoured Least Sandpiper. I repeated my earlier long tibia observations – in hindsight I suppose I was pushing for the rare option, and this was not as obvious as earlier as the bird was on land and the light was poor. I wasn't going to win this discussion so went home.

Later at home I noted the bird's identification had changed to Long-toed Stint and contributed to the debate on the SIBG website with my observations.

Julian Pickering

Written by: Steve Cribbin, David Hunter & Julian Pickering

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