Birding Controversies: Wilson’s Snipe and Others

This month, I will amplify a blog that I posted a few days ago on my personal website. This time around, I was hoping to talk to you about the Christmas Bird Count I did in North Vancouver on Sunday, but although we had a great outing and saw many great birds (including two Red-breasted Sapsuckers, a Belted Kingfisher and a Pacific Loon to name just these), I did not end up getting any usable photos because of the rather difficult lighting conditions, especially in the morning.

That is why I have chosen to speak of a Wilson’s Snipe I saw during the December 8 Stanley Park Ecology Society bird count instead, especially since we got a very good look at how this interesting bird forages for food (like a sowing machine that bobs all the time). I should also point out the this happens to be a life bird for me. And on top of it all, I was lucky enough to get many good shots, including this sequence of photos that show how the snipe was feeding:

Wilsons_Snipe_1 Wilsons_Snipe_2 Wilsons_Snipe_3

Seeing this species for the first time also reminded me that determining whether a bird was a sub-species or a full-fledged species could create controversy among ornithologists. In this case, the Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) used to be considered until 2003 a sub-species of the Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) found in Asia and Europe, when it was officially recognized by the American Ornithologists Union. I should add that the British Ornithologists Union also accepted this interpretation of things in its most recent bird checklist, but BirdLife International does not yet. I am curious to see if and when they do.

Another such controversy, I discovered recently, lasted more than a century: Catharus bicknelli, a.k.a. Bicknell’s Thrush, had been described in 1882 as possibly a separate species by an amateur ornithologist, Eugene Bicknell, but was long considered a sub-species of the Grey-cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus) by most birding authorities. But around 1992, professional ornithologists agreed with Bicknell and came around to the idea it should be considered a species, an idea that was soon fully accepted in the birding world, which is why it is now found in all guides published or re-published in the last decade or so.

But what matters most to me is that I clearly saw this snipe feed, something that its camouflaged plumage normally does not allow. I was truly lucky on that lovely winter day.

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