Time to add it to the British List?
It’s not on. That is, the Continental Stonechat Saxicola torquata rubicola, is not on the official British List of bird species and subspecies. On the 2006 BOURC list of subspecies, ssp hibernans is listed as a ‘resident breeder’ and ‘migrant breeder’. No mention of ‘rubicola’. Some authorities have lumped hibernans and rubicola. I would dare to suggest that if hibernans is to be kept on the British list then rubicola should be investigated and, more than likely, added. Or the 2 taxa are synonymised and hibernans is taken off the British list and replaced by rubicola. The current situation is arguably untenable in the long-term. I suspect our redoubtable friends on the BOURC are already on the case…!
For those cognoscente with Stonechat plumages, rubicola is recorded routinely particularly at coastal watch stations and reported to have bred in some east and south coast locations. There is even a ringing recovery from the near continent (which is, I think, probably sufficient proof of occurrence for admittance of the taxon to the British List).
“A male with a Dutch ring was ringed as a pullus at Dwingelo, northeast Netherlands on 10 May 2004 and controlled at Orfordness on 20th March 2005 (Suffolk Bird Report 2005).” (per Brain Small)
David and John Coopers piece has galvanized some action! So here’s a follow-up with a few more photos and illuminating comment:
First 3 photos I took on Menorca in June 2003:
Male Continental Stonechat, Menorca, June 2003. Not entirely sure I can age it. But this one stood out as having obviously more extensive orange-red colouring on the underparts compared to other males I saw.
Grahame Walbridge (from Portland Bill) wrote:
I read with much interest your piece on Continental Stonechats featuring the account of breeding in Sussex by the David and John Cooper. I have long been identifying birds to this form at Portland where, it seems to essentially be a scarce spring migrant, typically late Feb-mid Apr though, occasionally to May. To give you an idea of the numbers we are talking about here are some stats for the past five years. The majority are my own my own records though I have added a few records I gleaned from the PBO (Portland Bird Observatory) site. As far as I am aware I am the only observer locally who routinely assigns birds to rubicola. All the records relate to males though I have seen the odd female that I considered likely candidates.
2007 no records
2008 ten individuals (12 bird-days) on ten dates 24/2-18/3
2009 three:two on 2/3 & a single on 21/3 2010 four: three 12/3-24/3 & futher single on 8/5
2011 four 4/4-11/4
Spring passage of British Stonechats (S.t.hibernans) is typically mid Feb-late Mar so, quite short with up to 30 birds a day, usually peaking late Feb/early Mar. Autumn passage is typically much larger and, a more protracted affair, mid Sept-early Nov and day totals can reach 75. Despite scrutinising a large percentage of these birds I have never seen a potential rubicola and, too my knowledge, PBO have never trapped any at this time of year.
Common Stonechat is a regular breeder on the Isle in variable numbers, 2-12 pairs. To my knowledge rubicola has never bred, though a single male was on territory at Reap Lane through most of May some years ago (early 90`s ?). An individual I saw on 7/4/2011 was in full song for most of the day, in competition with two local male hibernans when I thought I could detect some subtle differences in song. Or could this have just been normal variation?
I only recently learnt, to my complete surprise, that rubicola was not on the British List, from Brian (Small) I recall. That, is a complete no-brainer!
Martin Cade, warden of Portland Bird Observatory sent photos of a 1st summer male rubicola trapped on 11th April this year. (they take amazing in-hand photo!). Check out their website if you haven’t seen it. Excellent stuff.
1st summer male Continental Stonechat, Portland Bill. 11th April 2011. Martin Cade
Martin Cade also sent a photo of 1st summer male from April 2010, showing the spread wing with tips of ageing (thanks Martin!):
“Also attached a photo from last year of the spread upperwing of a different male showing the main ageing features of a second calendar year bird in early spring: contrast between the old, faded, browner flight-feathers/various coverts, and the newer adult-type blacker coverts/maybe the odd tertial etc; later in the spring/summer these differences can get a lot trickier to spot as the flight-feathers in particular of adults fade/bleach quite a bit browner but they’re pretty safe to do in March and April.
1st summer male Continental Stonechat, Portland Bill. April 2010. Martin Cade
Andy Stoddart (visit his website) sent some images with this comment:
“Just to follow-up on the rubicola Stonechat stuff you sent me the other day, here are some photos I took today of a locally breeding male rubicola. All images are of the same bird. Although I didn’t photograph the underwing coverts they were strikingly blackish with white fringing.”
David Walker, warden at Dungeness Bird Observatory and one of the first to flag up the occurrence and appearance of Continental Stonechats in Britain wrote in correspondence with Grahame Walbridge:
“Glad to see that someone else is interested in these. As you are no doubt
aware I pointed out that this form was not on the British list in Birding
World 2001 but neither BB or BOURC seemed interested in taking these on
board at the time. Not sure why but there seemed very little interest in
them. I think it also led to a review of spring Siberian Stonechats with the
result that all previous records were found to be acceptable – something I
found very surprising. Not sure how you can prove the axillary patterns on
birds in the field. Some of the birds here would have been good candidates
for Siberian but more or less assumed that they are in fact just “good”
Like you, I think there are only a couple of us here who look hard at
Stonechats and I am sure our records underestimate the numbers as I only
count really well-marked individuals and otherwise just put them down in my
head or mention them to others as probables.
All our “good” records are of spring birds but not sure how obvious or
diagnosable autumn birds would be. All bar two of the records are of males.
I made a note in our 2008 report that one of our breeding birds was a
rubicola. There was at least one breeding male on the Lydd Ranges last year
that certainly looked like a rubicola and I also noted a breeding male there
My other records are as follows – all from the DBO recording area:
2011 29th March and 8th April.
2010 20th May (2), 23rd May and 28th May.
2009 14th March and 26th June.
2008 12th March and 14th March + the breeding male.
2007 14th April, 21st April and 24th May.
2006 14th April and 25th May.
2005 18th March (2 males) out of 15 birds and 27th March.
2004 16th March (3 males) out of 12 birds, 18th March (2), 20th April, 22nd
April and 25th May (2)
2001 18th-19th March, (2, M and F – the birds shown in BW), 21st March (also
in BW) and one on 27th-28th March.
The lack of birds in 2002 and 2003 is probably genuine as I was by then on
the look out for them.
In addition I have also seen a male on the RSPB Reserve on 27th March 2006
and a male and female at Lade on 24th March 2001.”
And finally Adam Hutt passed on details of a couple of photos of trapped Continental Stonechats from Spurn (where I have also seen them) in that same, familiar early spring season. The 2nd one seems an obvious 1st summer male and the first photo might also be that age too:
1st summer male Continental Stonechat, Spurn, 16th April 2009. Mike Pilsworth