by way of introduction
by Martin G
Steve Votier is a top-notch observer; I was personally a little miffed a few years ago when he beat me to finding Caspian Gull in Sheffield (how very dare he) even though he only lived there for a few months. So I am grateful for Steve’s honesty and willingness to explore a seeming ID faux pas with what is to actually a fascinating bird. The title above is mine not Steve’s and invites exploration rather than being an announcement :). So can they and have they? See Steve’s last comment: responses welcome.
The Lizard, Cornwall, 2nd October 2013
by Steve Votier
Preamble Sometimes it’s best to forget certain experiences in birding and I felt this way about a wheatear I found in the Lizard Village on 2nd October 2013. I’ve thought about it a lot since then and while I don’t think I covered my self in glory I wonder whether I might have stumbled onto something of interest. I had been out all morning with Ilya Maclean and Rob Curtis. These guys had to leave early afternoon, but the conditions were good so I stayed on. A scattering of interesting migrants (wryneck, grasshopper warbler, spotted flycatchers, whinchats etc) kept me interested and one of the features of the day was good numbers of northern wheatear. As always, I had spent much time checking these for something different. Mid-afternoon I had what I assumed was that much anticipated rare-wheatear experience. A small group of northern wheatears were perched on a pile of manure in fields within a sheltered corner of the Lizard Village and among them I flushed a female wheatear with jet-black axillaries and much white in the tail… Surely I was ‘in’…
Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). A wheatear with black axillaries was firmly on my radar as a ‘rare’. This feature was very striking in the field and is not simply a photographic artifact. Over the next hour or so, this bird gave me the run-around. However no matter the angle or conditions it looked interesting throughout. Very interesting.
Wheatear, Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). Initial impressions were of a small pale wheatear with dark wings, a plain face and long legs. Black-eared Wheatear?
I finally managed to note a range of key features that should have helped my identification: striking black axillaries; extensive white in the tail that seemed to mirror the classic Pied/Black-eared pattern (but see below); small size; very white underparts contrasting with peach wash on the breast only and white throat; rather dark contrasting wings. I considered a variety of options but the only thing that seemed to match was Black-eared Wheatear and, given the rather cold appearance, most likely melanoleuca. Pied Wheatear was ruled out straight away – this bird was not dark enough either above or below and lacked of any pale fringes to the upperparts. Nevertheless, it did not look like any Black-eared Wheatear I had seen previously so I was a little concerned. However I reconciled this with the fact I had never seen eastern Black-eared in autumn, but had seen some very variable female melanoleuca in Greece in spring. Also, maybe this species was more difficult than I had previously thought? Anyway, with an underwing and tail pattern like that, what else could it be? I had to make a call and I decided that the evidence was very strongly in favour of Black-eared Wheatear and I therefore released the news.
Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). This bird was consistently different from nearby northern wheatears in a number of respects.
Several birders arrived and saw the bird, which was now much more settled and feeding in horse paddocks, loosely associating with 3-4 northern wheatears. Tony Blunden (top birder who lives in the Lizard Village) and Ilya were able to capture a number of digital images. There was not a great deal of discussion about identification, although several did comment that it was not quite as anticipated. I felt this was partly attributable to collective experience of nominate bird on Scilly in 2011. At this stage I was focusing more on establishing whether this was eastern or western. Maybe not… The next morning I was busy, but by mid-morning I noticed on a number of websites that this bird had been re-identified as a northern wheatear from photographs…. I was less than happy. However, when I got a chance to look at Tony’s images, I could see why. The bird really didn’t look much like a Black-eared Wheatear at all. Oh dear. Oh bloody dear. What had I done? Ilya and I managed to get back down to the Lizard later that afternoon and spent several hours scouring the still numerous wheatears in the area. There was no further sign, so the only option was to resolve the identification from existing images.
Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). Where is it in relation to the northern wheatear? In the cold light of day this looked like a wheatear and very little like a black-eared. What to do?
The more I looked at the images the more it just looked like a northern wheatear and the resemblance to Black-eared Wheatear was superficial: the breast was too clean; the upperparts not the right colour; the tail too short and the face rather too well-marked. Moreover, while images of the tail did show a narrow terminal band, the tail was not typical of Black-eared Wheatear. In fact when you ignore the black axillaries the case for a rare wheatear was thin, very thin indeed. So what was it and what to do?
Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). These images show the rather narrow black terminal band. The tail was not right for typical Black-eared Wheatear however, although the outer tail feathers are missing.
As I mentioned at the start I really wanted to forget this bird. We all make mistakes, but this felt like a total howler. Whatever it was, I don’t think will ever be resolved. The possibility exists that it was a northern wheatear, but I find this very hard to believe given the colour of the axillaries. The overall colouration (especially the very white underparts) is possibly within in the range of northern, but I have never seen anything approaching this in an autumn bird in the past. I did consider the possibility that it might be an adult that has not undergone a complete summer moult, but this can be excluded given the relatively fresh plumage throughout. Therefore the argument for this being within the normal variation of Northern Wheatear is very weak. Seebohm’s Wheatear? One of the inevitable processes I went through (and I know Ilya, Tony and Rob did the same) was to look for a match on-line. It’s not the most sophisticated of birding techniques, but can be helpful. When you do this Seebohm’s Wheatear seems to fit the bill. Certainly the black axillaries were a fit, as was the restricted black terminal tail band http://www.leedingain.com/2013/04/seebohms-wheatear.html. Moreover, some images from Morocco of female Seebohn’s show birds with very white underparts contrasting with warm tones around the face and a ‘feel’ not dissimilar to the Lizard bird http://grahamsphoto.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/birding-in-morocco-part-three.html. I have not seen anything on Seebohm’s Wheatear in autumn, but presumably features such as underwing and tail pattern are consistent throughout the year. To be clear, I am not claiming this as a Seebohm’s Wheatear. I simply don’t know anywhere near enough about this taxon. However I do think that there is something to be learnt here and maybe if some more detailed information about them emerged in autumn, then this might be a slightly different story. If anyone has experience of this or of northern wheatear with similar plumage characters, I would love to hear more.
Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). The upperparts look very cold and grey in this image and contrast with the russet rear ear-coverts. Another feature of this bird was the rather dark wings (created by narrow pale fringes to the coverts) – in the field I (erroneously) convinced myself that this mirrored the pattern of an adult Black-eared Wheatear…
Comment from Nils van Duivendik
Female Seebohm’s have dark underwing-cov and auxiliaries with pale lines, but overall looking dark, male have solid blackish underwing-cov and auxiliaries (in line with many dark-throated wheatears). This looks like a first winter so sexing is probable not easy (but I have not find any picture of a autumn seebohmi so far). Anyway I think that those blackish underwing-cov and auxiliaries on a fresh bird like this are very interesting, especially in combination with the rest of the features (tail pattern and subtly different plumage tones). It also looks small against the Northern on the picture but that is maybe an Icelandic/ Greenland bird. Stephen also said ‘long legged’, that’s new for me so have to look in the literature if that is a seebohmi character too (a quick look at pictures on the internet suggest that indeed it could be).
Wow, this bird seemingly ticks some pro-seebohmi boxes…
Spring female Northern Wheatear (left) and female Seebohm’s Wheatear (right). Natural History Museum photo by Nils Van Duivendijk.
Spurn Bird Oct 2007
Don’t know if this is the same kind of beast as the Cornish bird or not, but while chatting with friends, the subject an intriguing wheatear at Spurn came out. Around for about a week in October 2007 it tricked same into thinking it might be a Black-eared Wheatear due to small size and light jizz, dark/blackish undewing coverts and other plumage aspects. Thanks to Bill Aspin, John Wright, Adam Hutt and Gary Taylor.
Above, interesting wheatear... Spurn, October 2007, Bill Aspin
Dominic Mitchell kindly provided instructive shots from Morocco:
Lee Dingain provided lovely shots of adult male Seebohm’s Wheatear. See more on his blog