Category Archives: 17) Chats and Thrushes

Stejneger’s Stonechat on Fair Isle

At least it looks that way

all photos by David Parnaby

Sibe Stenchat

31st October – 2nd November 2014… so far

David Parnaby, warden of Fair Isle Bird Observatory writes:

This Stonechat has been with us three days now, but has been incredibly elusive and jumpy. Finally got some photos this morning (2nd Nov) that appear to confirm our field suspicions of:

  • Unmarked, orange rump
  • Pale throat
  • Relatively prominent supercilium (esp when viewed from the front)
  • Unmarked flanks
  • Pale wing panel (pale edges to secondaries/tertials)

The tentative conclusion is that it looks like Stejneger’s Stonechat is the best fit.

They are surely right on the money. It’s a first winter and with non black underwing- a female. Perhaps therefore the first female Stejneger’s to be identified in the Western Palearctic (albeit with all that tentative stuff). I checked with Nils van Duivendijk and Andy Stoddart who also thought it basically looked the biz. The primary projection (I think) looks too long for European birds, the supercilium bit thicker than some Stejneger’s but probably OK. However check out  those lovely plain flanks and the colour of that plain rump!

Perhaps it travelled on the same flight over as the Eastern Crowned Warbler?

Lots more on identifying Stejneger’s Stonechat in the Challenge Series: AUTUMN which according to David Parnaby helped with the ID process of this bird.

Hooray! that’s what the book was all about :)

Sibe Stenchat4Sibe Stenchat5Sibe Stenchat(flight)Sibe Stenchat7 Sibe Stenchat3 Sibe Stenchat6



Eastern Black Redstart

Andrea Corso has been in touch. Though he’s not on this special island,  but Ottavio Janni is. A couple of days ago was Ottavio’s first day on the island. Result: 1 Little Bunting, 4 Yellow-browed warblers and THIS Redstart.

Nice one Ottavio (all his photos). Looks a very good candidate for the eastern phoenicuroides. The buff fringes to wing coverts and the emergent black bib make it a first winter male.

I was a bit wary about the whiter looking fringes to secondaries but a scroll through photos and chat with Andrea seem to make it ok.

Remember this guy? These are stunning birds. Maybe more in NW Europe this autumn?

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Eighteen of Eighteen

The Challenge Series: AUTUMN

The first shall be last. This was the first and biggest chapter to be written. It’s the last in the book. 6 taxa, all kinds of new info, new species possibilities and surely some big finds to come this autumn for those prepared…

For more on the content and how to buy the book click HERE.

1cy male Siberian Stonechat- maurus. October. Martin Garner

1cy male Siberian Stonechat- maurus. October. Martin Garner



Unusual Whinchat vocalisation in the North Pennines

It is great when reasonably common species throw up something new. Chris Hind observed a Whinchat with an usual call in the North Pennines recently; he shares his observations here.

In the North Pennines I heard a male Whinchat giving a call that I was unfamiliar with.
The bird was producing the normal ‘yu – tek, yu – tek’ series of sounds but also adding in some ‘hoeet’ elements. It almost sounded as if a nearby Willow Warbler was joining in but no, I could see this bird vocalising all the sounds as it opened its bill for each note. I made a sound recording as it continued to call in this same way.

Sonogram showing atypical call

Sonogram showing atypical call

The use of mimicry in the song of Whinchat is well documented (BWP) but there is no reference to any other elements in the call other than the two ‘yu’ and ‘tek’ sounds. Similarly I have been unable to find any sound recordings indicating variance from the normal calls. Personal communication with local ‘Whinchat workers’ has also revealed no atypical calls in their experience.

Chris Hind.

White-throated Robin. Really 3 years ago?

Blast from the Past

Can’t believe this was just over 3 years ago. Really?  Just having a nostalgic moment and wondering what surprising rarity might appear next.

Fond memories :)

On Monday morning, 6th June (2011) heading for a flight to N. Ireland I heard about one of those ‘super rarities’ that occurs every now and again. I had important commitments. I would not be home until Thursday evening. I didn’t expect to see it. 7:30 am this morning I learnt the bird was still present. Time to go!

Arriving around 10:15am I found a bowling green and c 30 less than optimistic birders. After a quick recce I headed for some thick hedgerow away from the group and nearer the sea. I reminded myself how I had seen a Red-flanked Bluetail just sit at the base of a wall and under a thick patch of hedge, remaining undetected until I had gone for a pee (see . Surely this chat was similarly chillin’ out. The only other birder I bumped into with the same idea was former Shetland resident, Jason Atkinson. He too had been working all likely looking habitat, hard. As we stood comparing notes a bird hopped from thick hedge. Before bins reached eyes I knew what it would be- phew no dipping today! A sign of the times: I opted to phone and twitter the news rather than run to get other birders in the area. I figured they would hear quicker! However it soon flew back into the ‘inner bowling green’ for all to see.

I inadvertently bumped into Chris Brown, the bird’s finder and Toby Collett (the grooviest facial hair in British birding?) took one of us for my ‘cheesy picture collection’. Toby also got (the best yet?) HD video of the bird this morning:

Jason got some cracking shots during our “private viewing”: 

Old Records Update?

I am sure many can now recite the ‘old records:’

1983: Isle of Man, Calf of Man. Male 22nd June

1990: Pembrokeshire, Skokholm. Female 27th -30th May

The Calf of Man individual was seen only briefly and at best the brownish wings likened to those of female Wheatear point towards it being a first summer males. Photos of the Skokholm bird however clearly show pale tips to primary coverts verifying that, like the Hartlepool bird, it was a first summer female.

Mr White-throated Robin, Chris Brown who first found (and trapped) the White-throated Robin. Here, outside his house- what a local patch! With ‘tick’ bucket I think he said some £1,500 had already been raised for the local ringing group- excellent result!

Photo below taken seconds after my first view:


Eastern Nightingales – well worth watching out for… (anywhere)

Oscar Campbell

Here in Abu Dhabi we are just getting to the end of another spring migration season and, as usual for the second half of April and early May, there has been a fine sprinkling of Common Nightingales to enjoy. With a general lack of low cover in much of the city, these ground-feeding birds are often very easy to observe and study here. The traditional task locally is to hunt through them in search of the odd Thrush Nightingale (rare but annual in the UAE and just about frequent enough to make it well worth checking carefully every last Luscinia). It is actually rather easy to pick out the odd Sprosser from almost all Common Nightingales occurring in the UAE and this is the take-home message of this short note – the majority of Common Nightingales on passage in both spring and autumn are the easternmost subspecies L. m. golzi (‘Eastern Nightingale’) and they look strikingly different from both Thrush Nightingale and nominate Common Nightingales occurring in Europe. My first ever Eastern Nightingale, in a public park in Abu Dhabi in April 2005, was a real eye-opener and all those I have seen since, including a few in the same park this week, have looked equally striking. Eastern Nightingale has reached the UK on three occasions in autumn and, looking almost as distinctive in even worn plumage in spring, is certainly fair game as a late May or early June overshoot in a manner akin to, say, White-throated Robin. Ok, finding one won’t have quite the same wow factor as an Irania but you’ll have nailed something at least as rare (and rather more intellectually demanding…)

A selection of images of Eastern Nightingales taken recently in the UAE in spring is presented below. European birders familiar with the nominate form that I have observed these birds in the field with are frequently as bowled over as I first was by their distinctiveness, which stems from a whole suite of characters. In fact, on an initial cursory glimpse, due to both plumage and tail movements (see below) it is even possible to pass Eastern Nightingale off as a Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin! I’ve done it myself – and this similarity was noted as long ago as 1991 by fortunate observers on Spurn!

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eastern nen4enf

Above © Oscar Campbell – Abu Dhabi, May 2014

Below: © Huw Roberts – UAE, May 2011


Salient plumage features, in rough order of prominence and importance are highlighted below:

  • The whole upperparts are invariably strongly grey-tinged, giving an overall rather sandy effect, with marked contrast between this and a rather pale, diluted rufescent tail and uppertail coverts. On some birds, even in spring, pale greyish tips to the rump feathers create a noticeably scaly effect.
  • There is obvious pale greyish or even almost whitish fringing on the tertials and greater coverts, the latter regularly forming a vague but definite wingbar. The median coverts often show rather obvious pale fringes too, although these can be often rather diffuse, especially in spring.
  • Primary tips frequently have sharp, neat white fringes and, on good photos, often eight primaries can be counted quite easily (perhaps because p2 – numbering ascendently – is fractionally longer than p3 whereas these two tips seem generally to fall together on many nominate birds)
  • A variably distinct pale loral area, sometimes running back over the eye as a diffuse supercilium –  nominate birds looks markedly bland and plain faced in comparison, although this character can seem to melt away as the bird turns its head.
  • There is sometimes a particularly distinct grey tinge to the nape. Coupled with any supercilum, this may isolate the crown and forehead as a slightly warmer cap and it may also smear onto the breast, forming weak greyish breast band that isolates the paler throat. The overall effect can then resemble the classic pattern of Thrush Nightingale but is much more washed out, with the grey tones weaker and smooth, entirely lacking any scaling or dingy smudging effect.

Appearance in autumn is only slightly different from spring. Feathers fresh from the post-juvenile or post-breeding moult on the breeding grounds have even more obvious pale fringing and the two-tone contrast between tail and rump / mantle may be even more striking. Below is a particularly co-operative individual from Abu Dhabi in October 2013.


© Oscar Campbell Abu Dhabi October 2014

One final striking character for Eastern Nightingale is their addiction to near-continual tail movements. These are emphasised by the length of tail (which barely, if at all, overlaps with nominate birds). Individual Eastern Nightingales, watched for prolonged periods over several days in Abu Dhabi sometimes go through periods of rather subdued, limited tail movements but they are the minority – most frequently the tail is in near continual motion. Movements include deliberate and sometimes continual lateral waving, sometimes with a sudden partial splaying of the tail when the tail is well to one side and also regular vertical abrupt flicks where the tail briefly rises high over the back. Again, sometimes at the maximum point of the downstroke there may be a sudden pulse or splay as the tail is partially opened. These movements are exhibited by retiring birds skulking in dense tangles, by birds foraging openly on the ground and even by birds resting and sunning on low, exposed perches.


© Oscar Campbell, Abu Dhabi, May 2014

A short note in BB (2011; 104:41 ) described how these movements will rapidly allow the distinction of Common Nightingale from Thrush Nightingale even on a mostly obscured view but there is also a chance that they are a very good indication of Eastern versus nominate Nightingales. Nominate (or, perhaps more likely africana) Common Nightingales do occur in the UAE but not frequently (see this bird for example) and as yet have not been studied with regard to tail movements. Observations from Birding Frontiers readers from western Europe on tail movements (or otherwise!) of Common Nightingales would be most welcome. At this stage a good rule  of thumb might be that any migrant Nightingale in Europe showing deliberate, prolonged lateral tail waving and pulsing demands a thorough examination, no matter how skulking or how dense the gorse or Suaeda!

The breeding range of Eastern Nightingale extends from eastern Iran northwards and eastwards to western China. It appears to be genuinely rare on migration through the western Arabia and the Levant, with only one record from Kuwait up to 2012 and a mere three in Israel by 1996. However it makes a good majority (maybe a vast majority) of passage Common Nightingales in the UAE and is also frequent in Oman – singing birds are easy to find in Musandam, northern Oman in April and the sometimes occur at amazingly high densities in Dhofar, southern Oman in October – lush hotspots such as Ayn Hamran and Wadi Darbat may be full of their song then. A small selection of excellent images from Oman is available here. Combining its frequency on passage in eastern Arabia with an extensive breeding range and a long-distance migration to east Africa, more records for Europe have got to be forthcoming!


Acknowledgements I would like to think Mark Smiles, Gaell Mainguy and Huw Roberts for useful and stimulating discussions concerning whilst observing Eastern Nightingales recently in the UAE. Also thanks to Huw for providing a number of useful images, including the two that are presented above.


First hyperlink: this bird!i=359545879&k=BWTpn9N&lb=1&s=A

Second hyperlink here



Greenland Wheatear

and the annual spring marvel


Yesterday a walk around the patch produced a good 12 plus Wheatears in a small area of cliff top. A Dunlin and Redshank also flushed from a tasty looking cliff top pool, newly dug. This is on the Northern side of Flamborough, the same kind of place revved up Scandinavian Rock pipits assemble as they await ideal weather in March. These Wheatears too had stopped just long enough to refuel. However the combination of characters on most individuals said Greenland, Iceland or NE Canada was their destination. Making them one of only 2 passerines (small perching bird) which routinely cross an ocean between wintering and breeding grounds. (Do you know the other one?). I find watching such smart looking birds with quite unfathomable flight plans and subtle subspecies difference to work out- one of birding’s treasures.

Male Wheatear with extensive pastel orange underparts, brown patch on upperparts, still some brown in black ear covert patch and upright gestalt befitting a leucorhoa

Male Wheatear with extensive pastel orange underparts, brown patch on upperparts, still some brown in black ear covert patch and upright gestalt befitting a leucorhoa

dun brown in mid back and brown marks in ear coverts seemingly typical of male 'Greenland Wheatear on spring migration

dun brown in mid back and brown marks in ear coverts seemingly typical of male Greenland Wheatear on spring migration


Some of the males had the combination of more extensive soft pastel orange below, weak brown patch (not all grey) between the shoulders and brown flecks in the black mask typical of leucorhoa (Greenland Wheatears). They stood more upright, taller looking, a whole different gestalt to nominate European/ British breeders.  I don’t know of counting primaries really works (6+ for nominate oenanthe, 7-8 for leucorhoa). If I can see 7 primary tips I am happy.

. greenland wheatear 4 .   greenland wheatear 3

Females look more grey- brown and peachy than nominate feamles. And why come along the east coast- surely better to leave Africa and head straight to the west of Ireland. But then if you are heading to Arctic Canada from sub-Saharan Africa- what’s a few hundred extra kilometres between friends?!


Do you have other/different thoughts on identifying NW bound (‘Greenland-type’) Wheatears in spring?


Marvel?- I do. Every spring!


and this field full of Cowslips was nearby to inviting a short stop and enjoyed too: