NB: There are excellent photographs of snipe species for your reference at GALLINAGO GALLERY
March 25, 2002: Yuko Sasaki
What criteria do you use to distinguish Japanese Snipe from the others, especially Swinhoe's? The easiest distinguishable points for me are: Japanese Snipe (1) is larger than Swinhoe's Snipe and other snipes that we see in Japan, and (2) it is whitish, paler than Swinhoe's.
I went to Nikko to see Solitary Snipe. There were at least two birds, one we saw was at small swamp near Yutaki, and the another one at Kotaki. The Solitary Snipe we saw were always 'dancing' except when preening their plumage. They moved their body up and down while looking for food in the water.
December 19, 2003: Peter Newbound
The site for Solitary Snipe is at Oku Nikko. I am told that they are regular on the river just downstream from the Yutaki Falls. I have not seen them there. Oku Nikko is high and already very cold. Last year in January the snow was deep. I had to hire snowshoes at the observatory in the middle of the marsh. This site is described well in Mark Brazil's guide.
January 8, 2003: Nial Moores
There are a number of ways to separate Latham's (Japanese) and Swinhoe's, some of which are easier or more difficult, depending upon the age of the bird and the time of year. For some differences in primary extension beyond tertials and tail, etc., simply refer to Shorebirds (Hayman, Marchant and Prater), though these differences might perhaps appear a little variable in the field.
Generally speaking, Swinhoe's tend to be greyish-washed on the breast and head; the eye looks large and set a little back; the dark on the lores (in spring especially) typically is extensive at the bill base and often spreads along the bill's cutting edge (an effect somewhat suggestive of summer Wandering Tattler); legs tend to be thick, shortish and often bright-coloured. Flight action is heavy, slow, on rather rounded-looking wings: the oft-cited 'woodcock effect'. Typically greyish birds are probably more likely to be confused with some Pintail Snipe than with Latham's. In my experience (in Japan, China and South Korea), they tend, in spring especially, to be in very wet areas, overgrown wet grasses and edges of flooded rice-fields.
Latham's tends to look powerful and rather upright, less solid, less squat than Swinhoe's (though this of course depends on posture) and is a rather brighter-looking bird (straw shades in spring; more rusty, especially on the head, in autumn), with a rather more obviously open-faced mien, the eye set even further back, and more variegated head pattern (look especially for the pale centres to the brownish ear coverts, especially in adults). The bill tends to have a less solidly dark cutting edge; and the legs are rather more straw or brownish. Flight action much more like a largeish, rather bright and variegated Common Snipe, with reasonably pointed wings. Often central tail shows strong rust. The species, in spring at least, is very often found in rather drier habitats than Swinhoe's, such as grass verges and open patches in woodland: it will flush into the bases of trees.
I am not a bander, but several measurements are believed to be diagnostic (most Latham's should be longer; the largest beyond the range of Swinhoe's, apparently), as should be tail feathers: rather more barred in most/all? Latham's, has a typically larger number of outer tail feathers, which are rather plainer in Swinhoe's, with greyish wash in many.
January 22, 2003: Mike Danzenbaker
Here is a photo of a snipe:
I've pretty much settled on an ID, but would be very interested in what those of you with more experience with the candidate species might say about it. The time of year was September, but I won't divulge location yet so as not to prejudice anyone.
January 30, 2003: Mathias Ritschard
Snipe identification is always difficult, and I am only familiar with Common and Pintail Snipes. But I am almost sure that it must be either Swinhoe's or Latham's, because I`ve never seen a snipe like that. Most striking features are: bill is intermediate between Common and Pintail; obvious pale edges to the outer webs of the scapulars almost lacking, which should never be the case in Common; and the tail projection beyond the wing tip is much too large for Pintail and probably even for Common.
January 31, 2003: Mike Danzenbaker
I apologize for having provided no information along with the picture, although it was intentional, in that I didn't want to bias anyone's opinion. But I'll provide some now. The photo was taken on Okinawa during September. The bird was relatively sluggish compared to the numerous Common Snipe in the same area, and also kept to drier ground than they did. It was heavier, and its flight wasn't nearly so eratic. In flight it lacked any trace of trailing white edges to secondaries, and showed the rather buffy wing panels characteristic of the other 3 species. Pretty much all other features can be seen better in the photo than in any description I might write.
I had rather settled on Latham's, but haven't been able to positively rule out Swinhoe's (having never seen one); however, from everything people have written on the subject, Latham's seems to be the frontrunner. I have close-up experience with dozens of Latham's on their breeding grounds, but somehow that experience didn't equip me to identify migrant individuals in random locations. Here is a shot of an unequivocal breeding adult Latham's:
April 18, 2004: Gabor Keresztes
I birded the State Park where the Uji, Yodo and Kizu Rivers merge near Ogura/Yawata/Kyoto, Kyoto prefecture, on Saturday afternoon (17 April). There was one 'mystery snipe' that I flushed from the weeds. The interesting thing was that the snipe was in a completely dry habitat not typical for the common snipe. Because the bird quickly vanished behind some bush, I did not get good views.
On Sunday I visited local paddyfields in the Seika/Kizu area, and saw another of the 'mystery snipe' many times, but always quite briefly, as it vanished into a stretch of weedy paddyfield. This snipe appeared slightly larger, with no or a very indistinct white trailing edge on the wing; instead the wing had a kind of light triangular shaped panel. The flight was less zig-zagging.
April 24, 2004: Fer-Jan de Vries
In the spring of 1996 in Hatoyama in Saitama-ken, I and a colleague noticed 'mystery snipes' visiting the dry greens/lawns around the institute. This was really dry land, on top of a hill. I never saw the snipes in daytime, only in the night, and badly lit by nearby street lights. The period of observation was roughly March 20 to April 10. The maximum number observed at a time was 4. The snipes seemed larger to me than Common Snipe. They appeared pale, with two clear white lines on each side of the back. Apparently they were feeding on the lawns, just quietly walking and probing. It turned out that one of the porters was familiar with the phenomenon, and he told us that he had also seen them in autumn. Indeed, in October 1996 my colleague Stephan Shuichi Haupt saw them again during the night. We never observed the birds during daytime.
My conjecture at that time was that they could be Latham's Snipe on their way to Hokkaido, which, as I understand, leave their winter grounds in Australia somewhere in March for a non-stop flight to Japan.
April 24, 2004: Sean Minns
I would agree with Fer-Jan's assessment of the snipe he saw, and indeed that Gabor saw, as being Latham's Snipe. On migration in both spring and autumn, this is the species I have most regularly encountered in drier habitats. The other three snipe species are usually confined to wetter or intermediate habitats. Although it must be said that Eurasian Woodcock also feed at night on the edge of woodland or in fairly dry fields, they are far from pale.
Latham's Snipe tends to look paler and larger than Common or Pintail. In flight it can be distinguished from Common by lack of white trailing edge, but is hard to distinguish from the other two species easily, as they too lack a white trailing edge.
April 27, 2004: Neil Davidson
I can't state anything definitively, but these are some points that run through my mind when looking for snipe in the Kyoto area:
Given the multitude of cautionary papers and notes written over the years, even as recently as Leader and Carey (2003), observers could be forgiven for being detered from trying to separate the members of this group in the field. Swinhoe's, Latham's and Pintail do present a real challenge and many birds will go unidentified without both good views in flight and on the ground. But it can be done. The time between the realization that a bird isn't a Common Snipe and its disappearance from sight can be frustratingly brief. It helps to be actively looking for these other species. Finding them isn't difficult. I would expect to see at least one bird every field-trip if looking in the right places, and double figures aren't very unusual. Identification, on the other hand, is far from easy and even with experience, not all birds can be safely assigned, as views are often inadequate to confirm ID. So, where to look?
In the Kyoto area, Common Snipe is easily the most numerous of the Gallinago species. It can be found in all wet locations, though it tends to avoid particularly dense or tangled vegetation and, unlike the larger pair of species, it is readily found on open mud such as river edges and in drainage ditches; it also shares such habitat as waterlogged or marshy fields. Common Snipe requires standing water, while Swinhoe's and Latham's, as well as Pintail, prefer dryer situations. Favoured areas for the larger pair in this area are the fairly close-cut levee banks; the floodwater catchment area between the levee and the river, especially where there is a mosaic of low, creeping vegetation with bare patches and taller clumps; meadow, an unlikely habitat in this area but there is an extensive tract of artificially-maintained meadow-like habitat here which attracts Latham's in particular; and on arable land usually next to or in moist fallow fields providing more cover. Latham's can be found in surprisingly open situations such as ploughed or burnt-off fields, Swinhoe's seems to like more cover. Importantly, they can be found in just a few square metres of suitable habitat in riparian or agricultural areas. All these birds can be found throughout April and the first week of May; I haven't seen Swinhoe's or Pintail later than that, but Latham's can still be seen into the third week of May at least. On the face of it, Wilson's Snipe would be an extremely unlikely bird to occur here but the more I think about it the less outrageous the idea seems.
Everyone will be familiar with Common as it is flushed: the combination of its explosive take-off, vigorous zig-zagging, call, the obvious white trailing edge to the secondaries and inner primaries, less-heavily barred underwing coverts, its frequent habit of towering into the distance and precipitate descent render it readilly recognizable. It is the only snipe here which exhibits all these diagnostic characteristics. All the other species show features which in combination may suggest, or if seen well enough, confirm identity.
Personally I would never dream of identifying Pintail Snipe on flight views alone; I find it the most difficult of the species here. It is something of a Frankenstein's snipe, seemingly cobbled together with sundry parts of the others and, while very difficult in flight, there are some pointers. To my eye it is closer to Common in size and structure; even though the wing-tips may be more rounded, they don't look as broad and heavy as the other dark-winged birds. The escape flight, though less energetic than Common, isn't as (relatively) sluggish as the other two. It rolls rather than zigzags, a less precise or slightly drunken version of Common. It tends not to gain so much height, and frequently drops to earth after a shorter distance, a habit it shares with Swinhoe's and Latham's, which is very helpful, especially if there's a levee near at hand to provide a vantage point. As the riparian habitat is rather linear, snipe often have to double back to stay in favoured habitat, affording excellent opportunity to check for projecting toes: Pintail and Swinhoe's have them, Latham's do not. Call is another potentially useful indicator of Pintail, but sound can be very subjective and transcription even more confusing. To my ear, the call of Common is a lively 'JAAK' with an incisive, rasping opening consonant sound, the 'A' as in 'bat' and with a hard, distinct termination. Another commonly heard call is a more worried, hurried, almost disyllabic 'J'yAK'; this seems quite distinctive. Pintail has a similarly structured call, though perhaps a little lower-pitched and less lively. It could be transcribed as 'JEEK', the opening not quite as incisive but most significantly the vowel sound is different and could be likened to the word 'air'; thus 'JAAK' and 'JEEK' are rather like the same word spoken by people with different regional accents. A surprised Pintail can give a rather odd-sounding, high-pitched, almost squeaky, 'JIK', quite unlike the other species. Both Pintail and Common can call singly or in series. In 12 years of looking at snipe in spring I've only encountered one Common Snipe that refused to call when flushed; any silent snipe is almost certainly not Common. Pintail almost always call, certainly more so than Swinhoe's or Latham's. Plumage on a rising snipe can't be seen in detail of course, but Pintail differs most obviously from Common in its dark underwing (which it shares with Swinhoe's and Latham's), a pale covert panel (shared with Latham's) and, if seen well, by only a very narrow whitish trailing edge to the secondaries.
Although Swinhoe's and Latham's are superficially similar when flushed, in part due to their mutual dissimilarity from Common, it is possible to separate them on flight views alone. Having said that, it isn't easy and may take several flushes to be sure, even when familiar with the two species. Swinhoe's' escape flight is heavier and more direct, less agile than the previous two,and it often drops quickly to ground with a direction-changing twist. This heavier appearance helps to make it look bigger than is possibly warranted by measurements. A rising Swinhoe's is a very unremarkable bird, it looks a patchwork of browns and at times the white tips to the tail feathers produce a trailing edge more eye-catching than any other feature. As previously mentioned, the toes project beyond the tail tip in flight, but this is of no value if the bird is flying away. The call is also important, though unfortunately they do rise silently at times. If it does call, then it usually does so singly, and it could be described as a very flat, weak, slurred 'chert' with the 'ch' as in the German 'ich', a growled vowel and a soft or muffled ending. I've also heard surprised birds give a distinctive, low, guttural double 'grre-rrek', again flat and growled.
Latham's is a big bird. It sometimes reminds me of an Oriental Turtle Dove, with its broad wings and long, full tail. Commensurate with its size, the escape flight is measured, direct and low. Plumage is more contrasting than Swinhoe's, the mantle looks blacker with bold stripes and the upperwing coverts form a pale panel. This species also often rises silently, but when it does, the call is very abrupt and it could be transcribed 'chEk'. So abrupt is it that at times it almost fails to enunciate the opening phoneme and the stressed 'E' is the prominent component, as the terminal consonant is also rather subdued. Though it can rise silently, this species is more likely to call in series than any except Common.
This is really no more than a quick note, I hope I've given neither the impression that snipe ID is too daunting nor that it's to be taken lightly, and of course I'm only talking about flushing the birds. Once you get your bird on the ground there's an entirely new set of problems to deal with.