Thursday 5 January 2017

A controversial Stonechat 2nd January 2017

I entered  the New Year, a day late, at Dungeness. A vile, heavy cold had floored me for New Year's Eve and Day, so still groggy but fed up lying in bed and feeling thoroughly miserable I made the decision to drive three hours to Dungeness in Kent and hopefully effect a re-entry into the world.

It was touch and go for the first hour of driving as my body still told me I was not well but then the hot sweats and slight temperature faded and I felt a whole lot better. I normally listen to the Today programme on Radio Four when driving in the early morning but I tired of hearing yet another litany of man's intolerance and inhumanity to his fellow beings. Happy New Year indeed. I switched to Radio Three and let Bach soothe my soul.

I arrived in Dungeness at around 0830 on a sunlit morning of arctic temperature, with not a cloud in the sky and the air so crystal cold you could see for miles. Great long streams of white vapour, man made comets, traversed an orange pink canvas of sky as high flying jets passed over the very southern tip of England. There were many good birds to see here, judging by earlier reports, but for now my main focus was on a controversial stonechat that had been frequenting a vast area of gravelly wasteland and gorse scrub stretching away from the road I was now parked on. Those who know me well are aware that I have more than a passing interest in stonechats and this was the main interest and reason for my visit.

Allegedly the Dungeness stonechat is a Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus stejnegeri, and is of the race of Siberian Stonechat that comes from the east of the huge range that is encompassed by two races of Siberian Stonechat, the aforesaid stejnegeri from the east and Saxicola maurus maurus from the west. It has until just recently, been accepted that S.m.maurus and S.m stejnegeri were one and the same but that stejnegeri, clinally, was darker in its plumage tones. However  perception of these two races has now changed as recent mitochondrial DNA research has shown that stejnegeri is not as everyone  assumed closely related to maurus from the west and as such is likely to be split from the western maurus and become a species in its own right. Hence the current interest, and as a consequence this purported stejnegeri example was attracting a lot of attention from twitchers, listers and general birders alike 

All well and good but on seeing this bird I immediately decided that it looked like no other Siberian Stonechat I have ever seen and others are also questioning its identification. The bird in question is completely without any colour tone at all being overall grey, white and black. Supposedly analysis has been carried out on I think a faecal sample and allegedly purports to show this bird is a Siberian Stonechat of the race stejnegeri and that is the sole basis for its identification. 

Siberian Stonechat?
Having now seen both the bird and the site it inhabits how anyone could find and collect a faecal sample in the vast area that the constantly active stonechat roams across is a source of some wonder and disbelief. It is all very disconcerting. Also this Siberian Stonechat is paired to a normal male European Stonechat, the pair associating closely and constantly. This is virtually unique as I know of no record of a European and Siberian Stonechat forming a pair in winter.

Another of these grey/white examples has now been found in Richmond Park and has also been promoted as a potential Siberian Stonechat based on its underwing coverts being wholly black - a normally sound identification criteria for male Siberian Stonechat but this bird appears to be a female as it shows no sign of male characteristics and female Siberian Stonechats do not have black underwing coverts.

Seven years ago, in November 2009 I went to see a purported Siberian Stonechat at Rainham in Kent but it was an aberrant European Stonechat with, you guessed it, grey and white plumage also devoid of any normal colour tones (see image below) and it was a female paired to a normal male. Sound familiar?

This was the aberrant female European Stonechat at Rainham in 2009 paired
with a male European Stonechat. It looks very similar to the supposed
Siberian Stonechat at Dungeness.
Anyway conjecture about the Dungeness stonechat's identity carries on although the DNA analysis if true is hard to query but I can find no confirmation of just exactly who obtained a faecal sample and who analysed it. We will just have to wait and see and this serves as a fine example of the frustrations and challenges of bird identification and would indicate that maybe there should not be quite such a rush to claim the specific identity of an aberrant bird such as this.

Incidentally for those who are interested, stejnegeri is pronounced stain eggery, the name coming from the Norwegian born American ornithologist Leonhard Stejneger who discovered this race

It took a little while to locate the bird, standing in the cold of early morning on a frosted grassy bank with a dozen or so other birders scoping the tundra like wastes before us. A male Merlin seen by just me and a neighbouring birder passed fast and low along the undulating shingle. So fast and quick it was gone almost before you realised it had been here

Birders waiting for 'that stonechat' to show itself
Eventually the Siberian Stonechat  showed up distantly, sat on top of a clump of gorse. The main thing I noted was how pale it appeared in the sunlight, its underparts almost gleaming as it came closer. We followed it and then lost it in the contours of the shingle as it constantly moved from perch to perch. It was refound about thirty minutes later and as it came ever closer we saw more and more plumage detail. Natty in grey and white striped upperparts and with a large amount of white on the wings and a strikingly black tail it was a smart bird to see whatever it turns out to be but honestly I am not convinced this is a Siberian Stonechat let alone stejnegeri

We will see.

It transpired I was correct in my doubts about the identification of this bird and the one in Richmond Park. Martin Collinson of Aberdeen University confirmed on 14th January 2017 that the DNA samples he was sent got mixed up with a sample of a bona fide Stejneger's Stonechat Saxicola maurus stejnegeri sent from Spurn in Yorkshire. Both the bird from Dungeness and Richmond Park were as I suspected aberrant European Stonechats and nothing more.

It was constantly on the move, hyperactive, flying up and down from low perches to seize prey and never came really close, at times leading us a merry dance as it disappeared in the folds of shingle and gorse only to then re-appear far away from where it had last been seen. I watched as it worked its way along a fence line and then flicked over a bank and into the adjacent Denge Quarry and that for now was the last I saw of it.  European Stonechats, up to five, both male and female were flitting around looking incredibly dark after my extensive viewing of the monochrome Siberian Stonechat

I resolved to return later but for now there were other good birds to see, the first of which was a Caspian Gull which had been frequenting the vicinity of  the  hut that sells fish, out near the point. A small flock of large gulls were loafing there as I drew up and amongst them was a first winter Caspian Gull.

Caspian Gull- first winter/second calendar year

A classic individual showing all the characteristics of a three colour plumage namely, grey mantle, brown wings and white head. A long black bill and long legs confirmed its identification. When it spread its wings you could also see how pale and relatively unmarked they were below, another good id feature.

I stood with other birders many of whom were unable to distinguish it as they were 'not into gulls.' Fair enough, I can understand, as gulls are not everyone's cup of tea and are notoriously difficult and variable in their plumage but for me and others this is what makes 'gulling' so fascinating. A challenge. Always something to learn. There were other gulls amongst the small flock, adult and first winter Greater Black backed Gulls, a second calendar year Yellow legged Gull and Herring Gulls of both argentatus (the northern version) and argenteus (our version) races.

Yellow legged Gull- first winter/second calendar year 
with adult argenteus Herring Gull behind

The sun continued to shine across this unique landscape, some would say desolate, but with its random old sheds converted into modest homes, decrepit boats and unidentifiable machinery scattered over the stony wastes and a wild open space of shingle, sea and sky all dominated by the great, grey, hulking monolith of the nuclear reactor it has a quite unique and indefinable air of fascination about it.

My plan was now to visit the RSPB Reserve a little way back down the road I had just traversed. Here I hoped to find Tree Sparrows, a Ring necked Duck and a Long eared Owl all of which had been reported the day before. Being a Bank Holiday the reserve was beginning to fill up and the car park was approaching maximum capacity as I drove up the long rough track to the Visitor Centre dodging the sheep let loose to graze and that were now wandering along the track.

I proffered my RSPB membership card and walked through and out to the nearby 'dipping pool' where at the back in a tangle of small trees, branches and twigs sat a Long eared Owl relatively in the open and viewable - for a Long eared Owl that is. It is always a pleasure to see one and this one sat stoically on its perch occasionally moving its head and looking out across the water to me.

Long eared Owl
Ten minutes of owl adoration passed and then I made my way back down the approach track to the last pool on my left near to the entrance gate. There should be a drake Ring necked Duck here and if I was lucky it would not be asleep or hidden in the reeds at the back of the pool. I was lucky and soon found it diving relatively close, with a couple of Tufted Ducks on the blue waters of the pool.

Ring necked Duck-male
This whole area was alive with birds and the wet grassy areas at the back of the pool hosted a huge flock of Lapwings and Golden Plover, the majority of the flock not feeding but just standing relaxed but ever wary for the approach of a predator. A large white heron, statuesque amongst them, turned out to be a Great White Egret, a definite bonus although they are now reasonably regular here and a flock of Eurasian Wigeon formed a moving carpet of grey and chestnut as they plucked at the grass. moving in close packed formation, as is their way, across the wet field and then in a flurry of wings and whistling calls taking alarm and flying onto the water before once again seeking the shore to recommence their grass clipping.

Just a few metres further on by the entrance gate was the small house with the feeders where I could find Tree Sparrows, and I could hear them long before I saw them, fluttering around the seed feeders and bickering amongst themselves or skulking, deep in the brambles chattering to each other.

Tree Sparrows
So my day's list of birds increased with some very desirable species now on it. I  had seen all that I had planned with the additional and not inconsiderable bonus of a male Merlin. Never the easiest of birds to see at any time of the year and especially in the south.

I now decided for another go at 'the stonechat'. I wanted to see it better and try to make sense of this very strange bird. When I returned to the location the stonechat was already being watched so it did not require finding and for the next hour I and other birders followed it as it fed frantically, still constantly active and flighty, in close proximity to the road. Although getting reasonable views I could still add nothing to or modify my initial reservations on first seeing it so just enjoyed its company for the hour or so I was there before it flew with its male companion far out into the shingle wastes and became but a dot.

My cold was now beginning to re-assert itself and have an influence on my welfare and I decided to head for home rather than test my physical reserves any further. It was about one pm but I felt I had done a full day already and had seen all the good birds that were meant to be at 'Dunge'.

In the warmth of the Audi I set the controls for the heart of the sun, leaving Dungeness and driving towards an orb of fiery orange low on the horizon, heading  westwards to where the beautiful go to die.

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