Friday 20 September 2019

Eastern Black eared Wheatear at Fluke Hall 14th September 2019

On 1st September an adult female Eastern Black eared Wheatear was reported from Fluke Hall which is on the Lancashire coast near a place called Pilling. However, during the day, as photos appeared on social media, the identification was queried and it was suggested that the bird was in fact an adult female Pied Wheatear, which, although rare in Britain, occurs here more frequently than does the rarer Black eared Wheatear.

Current informed opinion, based on DNA analysis, suggests that the Black eared Wheatear, consisting of two subspecies, should be split into two separate species, called Eastern and Western Black eared Wheatear respectively. 

Eastern Black eared Wheatears are found in southern Italy, the Balkans, then range eastwards to Iran and they winter in Sudan, whereas Western Black eared Wheatears are found in Iberia, southern France and Morocco and winter south of The Sahara.

I was going to The Isle of Arran on 6th September for a week's holiday with Mrs U and our daughter who we were to collect from her home in Glasgow and realised that I could quite easily divert on my way north to go and see the contentious wheatear but as the week wore on Pied Wheatear seemed to be the more favoured identification and as I have seen two Pied Wheatears in Britain, one of which was a female, I decided not to make the effort to go and see it.

Female Pied Wheatears and female Black eared Wheatears are notoriously hard to separate in the field in autumn and in some cases it is impossible to do so. It requires a very thorough examination of all the bird's plumage features before one can, with any degree of certainty decide which species any particular female belongs to. If this is not problematical enough the two species also hybridise where their ranges overlap.

The bird at Fluke Hall was extremely confiding and allowed itself to be photo'd from very close range which in turn allowed a thorough examination of all the plumage features by using the excellent photos that had been taken and it was by such diligent scrutinising of one of the many aforesaid photos that the identification of this bird was finally confirmed to be a female Eastern Black eared Wheatear of which, to date, there are only sixty records in Britain, excluding this one. The process leading to the identification was a triumph of dedication and detailed examination of all the feather tracts of this bird. On the mantle feathers, which by luck had become displaced by the wind when a particular photo was taken, a minute white spot was found at the base of  one of the mantle feathers which is a diagnostic feature of Black eared Wheatear.

I now became a lot more enthused and interested in this bird as I need Eastern Black eared Wheatear for my British list and its inclusion would bring me to 495 species seen in Britain, edging me ever closer to the magic figure of 500. There was little I could do about the situation whilst on Arran but I checked RBA (Rare Bird Alert) daily and it was confirmed each day that the wheatear was still present and, once I was back on the mainland of Scotland, it was reported to be still at Fluke Hall on the day we left Glasgow to drive south.

In a couple of hours driving I could, hopefully, see it.

Mrs U was amenable to the half hour diversion off the M6 to go to Fluke Hall so I could see the bird and we duly followed the Satnav as it took us along Fluke Hall Lane to where it ended in a rough car park under the seawall.

We knew we were in the right place as about twenty birders were ranged along the sea wall looking intently at the large boulders forming a sea defence between the salt marsh, the seawall and the car park.

I took the steps up to the top of the sea wall and looked out across a wide expanse of saltmarsh. I  saw the wheatear almost immediately, perched on one of the huge boulders protecting the sea wall. It flew out onto the saltmarsh to seize something and then returned to another boulder where it perched and looked around before flying out after another item of prey and returned to yet another boulder, constantly moving its postion after each sally out from the boulders. We dutifully followed, walking  along the top of the seawall.

It ranged widely but generally preferred to remain in an area of boulders covering four or five hundred metres and was on view continuously. Being a female its plumage was dull, mainly featureless being a greyish buff on its upperparts  and buff on its breast fading to buffish white on the rest of its underparts. Its bold white rump, uppertail coverts and black and white tail were the only really striking feature, mainly visible when it flew.

I watched  and photographed the comings and goings of the wheatear for around an hour and even Mrs U left the car to come and see it thus adding another rare bird to the never to be forgotten Ancient Murrelet that she came, on a whim, to see with me on Lundy Island many years ago.

The weather was meant to be sunny but was distinctly autumnal, overcast and cloudy with a strong cold wind blowing, so after an hour we drove back to join the madness on the M6 and make our way to Oxfordshire.

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