Breeding in Britain
This piece is written by David and John Cooper. As a refresher it’s generally understood that the form of Stonechat which breeds in Britain is ssp. hibernans. Over a decade ago folk began to wonder why some Stonechats particularly on south and east coasts of Britain looked ‘different’ with an appearance as more akin to the ‘continental form’ rubicola. I have occasionally seen east coast migrants and odd breeders in Britain which I felt fit rubicola much better. Last summer Andy Deighton photographed a rather rubicola-like male on the moorland fringe near Sheffield (Yorkshire Birding 18:3). Interestingly rubicola have been, and occasionally still are, misidentified as the Siberain Stonchat ‘maurus’ (in both male and female plumages). They are great wee birds and always worth an extra look at. I guess we still have things to learn about them.
Continental Stonechats Saxicola torquata rubicola at Beachy Head, East Sussex.
This striking male held territory in at least 2009 and 2010 although its breeding success was never established. It had a broad white rump with grey shaft-streaking and tips to its longest uppertail-coverts. The images portray the requisite extensive white belly extending to the centre of its lower breast, white flanks, sooty-grey underwing-coverts with white fringes (buff-grey in S. t. hibernans) and its large flared white neck patches all of which are considered characters of S. t. rubicola (Walker 2001) (Urquhart 2002).
Adult (3CY+) male Continental Stonechat S. t. rubicola at Beachy Head, East Sussex. July 2011.
Whilst Continental Stonechat S. t. rubicola has yet to be formally admitted to the British List, there is a recent opinion that S. t. rubicola is the closest match to such bright male Stonechats and they are considered as not uncommon in Britain although mainly seen on passage (Stoddart 2009). Typically they show a restricted, though still bright, orange patch on the breast, extensive white neck-sides and inner wing-covert patches; and large areas of white on the rump and uppertail-coverts (Stoddart 2009).
Male Continental Stonechat S. t. rubicola resemble male Siberian Stonechat S. t. maurus but, amongst other features, (Hellstrom and Waern 2011) draws attention to the fine dark shaft-streaks on the rear flank just above the legs describing it as a feature more commonly seen in S. t. rubicola than S. t. maurus.
As there is no visible moult contrast in the greater coverts this male can be aged as an adult rather than a first-summer. It is entirely consistent for an adult to show a distinct brownish hue to its worn adult wing (especially the primaries) (Hellstrom and Waern 2011).
In flight, its large white shoulder patches and large area of white on the rump are conspicuous. However, the pure white part of the rump is rather restricted and does not extend onto the lower back all of which is considered consistent with S. t. rubicola (Hellstrom and Waern 2011). Interestingly, Urquhart (2002) describes some birds that he considered S. t. hibernans from the South Coast as having large white rumps with some minimal dark streaks and/or spots and sets out the reasons for querying the validity of recognising the two forms, although conversely, (Stoddart 2009) considers there is value for continuing to recognise them.
This female was seen feeding the juvenile male that was accompanying the adult male. It is a very close match to that portrayed in Plate 110 in (Hellstrom and Waern 2011) labelled as a probable female. Some female S. t. rubicola such as this one are extraordinarily dark, especially in Summer, an effect that becomes more pronounced due to wear, and may result in the rather male-like appearance. Female British Stonechat S. t. hibernans shows no white on sides of neck (Urquhart 2002) and it is interesting to note that the breeding female portrayed on p. 295 therein lacks a white inner-wing covert patch. Furthermore (Urquhart 2002) includes S. t. rubicola as more frequently sporting a more prominent supercilium.
The white inner greater covert sexes this juvenile as a male.
As breeding has been previously suspected and documented for S. t. rubicola in Essex (Dally 2001) and on Scilly (Siddle 2001) it should be expected elsewhere and indeed (Walker 2001) predicted that closer scrutiny of the few breeding birds in Kent and East Sussex may prove interesting.
Dally, A. 2001. Stonechats in Essex. Birding World Vol. 14 No. 7: 305.
Hellstrom, M and Waern, M. 2011. Field identification and ageing of Siberian Stonechats in spring and summer. Brit. Birds 104: 5: 236-254.
Siddle, J. 2001. Apparent Continental Stonechats on Scilly. Birding World Vol. 14 No. 9: 389.
Stoddart, A. 2009. An unusual Common Stonechat. Brit. Birds 102: 3: 137-8.
Urquhart, E. 2002. Stonechats: a guide to the genus Saxicola. Christopher Helm, London.
Walker, D. 2001. Apparent Continental Stonechats in England. Birding World Vol. 14 No. 4: 156-158.
David & John F. Cooper, West Sussex. UK.
Eds P.S. I sent this to Andy Stoddart (referenced above) who commented:
“I’ve always assumed that rubicola is really regular here – certainly many passage birds in early spring and again in late autumn look basically like rubicola to me whilst the local breeders (eg on Kelling Heath and the few pairs in east Norfolk) are also pale/bright and rubicola-like.
So, despite the form not being on the British List I would imagine that they’re common, both as migrants and as breeders in the SE.”