A Stonechat. Discuss.

Yesterday afternoon, in dull light and rain, I came across a strikingly pale Stonechat in a grassy paddock at Little Woodcote in Surrey. It had something of the Whinchat about it, all creamy peaches and obvious supercillium, but it was distant and flighty. My schoolboy error was in not having my scope with me, and seeing that I needed to get home, the bridge camera came out and I took a couple of dodgy shots. These were enough to elicit interest from a few birders, one of which, Peter Alfrey, met me shortly after first light this morning to try and see if the bird was (a) still present and (b) a wanderer from further east.

Thankfully the bird had stayed overnight and had remained in the meadow, and not only that, it was an awfully lot closer than yesterday. A ‘typical’ female Stonechat was keeping it company, highlighting the striking paleness of ‘our’ birds underparts, lacking the orange-russet tones of its typical hibernans companion. Again, the supercillium was marked and obvious. Peter fired off a number of shots with his camera while I obtained some video. Our initial observations revealed chestnut upper-tail coverts that exhibited some dark streaking, but maybe not in a neat regular pattern. Underwing coverts were not easy to see, although they did not appear to be black, which suggested that if our bird had indeed wandered from the east it would be a female.

Those upper-tail coverts, with the streaking, initially sent the ‘eastern trail’ into a dead-end, as we expected both eastern species, Siberian (maurus) and Stejneger’s (stejnegeri) to exhibit unmarked upper-tail coverts. We had still yet to scrutinise the photographic evidence of the state of the rump. I did remember something about Stejneger’s Stonechat sometimes exhibiting upper-tail covert streaking, and dug out a paper that appeared in British Birds (November 2014). In it, the authors state that out of c200 stejnegeri Stonechats handled, 60% showed some dark streaking on the upper-tail coverts (these being birds that had already moulted the all-white juvenile upper-tail coverts). Were we right in assuming that our bird must be from the west of Europe after all?

Here are three video extracts from this morning. The bird appeared paler in some angles, any change in lighting exaggerating or lessening the effect.

When Peter got to look at his photographic efforts, he was able to answer our questions about the underwing and upper-tail coverts/rump.

The underwing coverts and axillaries are light grey, certainly not any black to be seen. What should be expected of female maura/stejnegeri? Does this conclusively rule them out?

A chestnut rump and upper-tail coverts blessed with plenty of darker streaking, certainly not maura and maybe the streaking is too evenly spaced for stejnegeri? 

We have both come to the conclusion that, as striking and interesting as this bird is, it will not win any prizes as an Eastern Stonechat tribute act. So what is it? Pale hibernans? A rubicola? Whatever its true identity, we now both know an awful lot more about Stonechat identification.

My thanks to Peter for his use of images and superior input.


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