Tuesday, 10 September 2019

An ID Problem with a LifeTick Wheatear, 7th September 2019

My UK sightings collection of Wheatear species is paltry and the only scarce one on my list is an Isabelline Wheatear seen in Cornwall in 2016. For one reason or another I have failed to see any of the others that occur in the country from time to time. On Monday a very rare Wheatear had been found in Lancashire in the shape of an Eastern Black-eared Wheatear but doubt on that birds true identity had soon emerged with many observers believing it to be a not quite as rare, but still pretty rare, Pied Wheatear instead. The bird in question is a female and the plumage of both species is extremely similar. Whichever species is eventually assigned to the bird it would still count as life tick for the Old Caley's!

The Wheatear was found frequenting a stretch of sea wall on the southern edge of Morecambe Bay near Fleetwood and from the very first day excellent images surfaced on the internet. Despite those images and many observers watching the bird throughout the week there was still no definite conclusion to the birds true identity although the bird news services were reporting the bird as a Pied Wheatear (or possible Eastern Black-eared Wheatear). A few eminent birders were, and indeed still are, convinced that the female bird is an Eastern Black-eared so the argument may rumble on a bit longer. In an attempt to confirm the correct ID an intrepid birder has secured some of the birds droppings in order to test the DNA make up which would lead to a definitive answer. Except that both species breeding ranges overlap in Eastern Europe and they have been known to hybridise so the results of DNA analysis may not be entirely accurate! Phew!

But as I've already said, neither Pied or Black-eared (whether Eastern, Western or from anywhere else) Wheatear feature on our life list so we decided that a trip north was in order. It would be our second long journey of the week following on from our mammoth undertaking to see the Brown Booby in Cornwall on Wednesday. While at football the other week, AFC Fylde were mentioned in dispatches and at the time I owned up to actually not knowing where Fylde was which is unusual for me since I normally have a firm grasp of UK geography. Obviously I knew it was in Lancashire but didn't know exactly where. Well this trip would enlighten me since Pilling, the village nearest to the Wheatears location, was situated in a part of the country that is known as the Fylde coast.

The journey north up the M40 and M6 motorways would be around 190 miles and would take about 3 hours. Saturday mornings are one of the few quieter times to be on motorways in this country and we encountered no hold ups as we sped north. We were parked up by 10 o'clock and joined the 15 or so other birders on the sea wall just a few minutes later. We had chosen a beautiful clear and sunny morning to visit and the sunshine would be at our backs which would help with my photography. On the short walk along the sea wall we saw several Northern Wheatears but largely ignored those for now and strode towards our intended target bird which was evidently showing well still judging by the other birders all being focussed on the same point. We stopped short and scanned the rocks ahead and sure enough the Wheatear was showing prominently on one of the rocks. Even though I don't consider myself informed enough to make my own call on the Wheatears identity, for the purposes of this piece I will refer to it as a Pied Wheatear from now on in keeping with the bird news services.

Pied (or Eastern Black-eared) Wheatear, Pilling Lancs, 07/09/2019
After taking my customary couple of record shots we continued on and positioned ourselves adjacent to the Wheatear. I set the scope up for Mrs Caley, not really necessary since we were no more than 10 metres away from the bird and set my stall out for more camera action. The Pied Wheatear, #262 for the year, was crouched rather than standing tall as most Wheatears do and blended in well with its surroundings. From our initial front on view the breast was a soft peachy colour while the head was a cold plain brown with a lighter and indistinct peachy supercilium. The crucial ear coverts were a degree or two darker but certainly not black. When the Wheatear turned side on the upper parts were as uniformly brown as the head but with pale fringed darker brown wing feathers. The tail when closed appeared black but when opened showed much white but with an uneven black terminal band. Bare parts were black. As already stated, the finer details that distinguish a female Pied from an Eastern Black-eared are largely beyond me!

The Pied Wheatear didn't appear to want to do much as we watched, only shifting position slightly as a reaction to a gust of wind. Then after remaining pretty motionless for at least a few minutes the Wheatear suddenly sprung into the air, presumably to snatch a flying insect, before landing a short way further along the rock wall. The Pied Wheatear made use of any rock, often choosing the highest spots on which to perch and also a couple of marooned and dead tree branches that had lodged into the rocks.

Occasional sorties were made by the bird out onto the grass edged marsh but mainly it spent its time hunting in and around the rock wall. The Pied Wheatear was also very settled and seemingly at home in its adopted home and was clearly going nowhere. Thus there was unlimited opportunities for taking photos but after a time it becomes pointless taking the same type of images so I began attempting to gain flight shots. Trouble was that the Wheatear would take off without any warning or visible signs that it was about to so it became a game of waiting for the spring and then firing the camera while trying to track the direction of the birds flight. Needless to say I ended up with a lot of frames of rocks and no bird! But persistence pays off and after some practise I at least managed to grab a few reasonable shots even if they were mostly of the Wheatear almost out of frame.

During the week before there had been a steady trickle of Storm Petrels and Leach's Petrels past the vantage point that we were stood. Unfortunately for us though they had been passing because of two criteria that we didn't have today, namely a strong onshore breeze and a high tide. We had neither, there was almost no discernible wind except for the occasional flutter and we couldn't even see the sea since at low tide Morecambe Bay becomes one big muddy plain! At least the mud had attracted lots of wading birds although most were so distant even the scope couldn't pull them out of the heat haze. Still we noted Redshanks and Lapwings, and there were Little Egrets and Shelducks too. A passing Sparrowhawk caused a stir amongst the waders but the Pied Wheatear was virtually unmoved.

I returned to the sport of trying to capture some more unusual shots of the Pied Wheatear but in truth that was tricky owing to the birds unwillingness to do much. It was nice to get a few frames of it perched in another beached dead tree and I managed to get a couple of it hopping from one rock to another.

We'd been on site for nearly two hours and thought it was time to move on, I still harboured plans to go onto the Wirral and hopefully find some passing Petrels and Skuas but for the same reasons as stated above those plans would appear to be futile given the weather conditions and there was no news of any passing the west coast today. I took a few more photos of the Wheatear before we moved on. When editing them the following day imagine both my surprise and delight when I discovered a two frame series that had captured the Pied Wheatear flying low over the rocks (one is chosen as the header for this post). Possibly some of the best shots I've ever taken!

Leaving the Pied (or Eastern Black-eared) Wheatear we walked back to the car but this time took some time viewing the Northern Wheatears. There were 5 of the bigger and more robust birds. Noticeably the Pied and the Northern Wheatears never ventured close to each other and each had totally different feeding habits even though their chosen prey would be similar. 

Northern Wheatear
I studied the Wheatears and noticed that two of them appeared larger and more richly coloured. In fact the peachy under parts extended all the way down past the belly and wasn't just confined to the breast area as in the nominate form. The back and head were a more richly brown colour too. To top the lot both birds had a broad and striking pale supercilium compared to the other three and led me to the conclusion that they had to be of the "Greenland" form of Northern Wheatear.

"Greenland" form of Northern Wheatear
We couldn't decide what to do for the rest of the day so in the end bowed to our own discretion, our trip to Cornwall earlier in the week had taken its toll, and head home. Stopping for a coffee near Stafford I discovered that some Lapland Buntings, needed for the year list, had been found at Llandudno on the North Wales coast which we could easily have detoured to! I have a rule never to go back on oneself so it was off the agenda but I'm sure, hopefully, that we'll have another chance at them soon. We got home tired but extremely satisfied at a weeks birding that had given us two lifers in the Brown Booby and Pied (or Eastern Black-eared) Wheatear and two additional year ticks with a Pectoral Sandpiper at Biggleswade last Sunday and some Choughs in Cornwall. Roll on next weekend!

Pied or not Pied? Or Eastern Black-eared?

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