Thursday, 8 March 2012

The stonechats and wheatears at Al Baha

There are a bewildering array of possible stonechats at Baha at this time of year. There are three sub species of Siberian stonechat possible there - armenica, variegata and maura, and also European stonechat (rubicola) as in other parts of Saudi Arabia. However, for south west Saudi Arabia there is also a resident sub species of African stonechat called felix.

As I understand it, stonechat has not officially been divided into African, Siberian and European yet. I am happy with this! I see more variation in the sub species within a cluster (eg Siberian) than between them. 


The bird above is either a European stonechat or the resident felix sub species of  African stonechat. All I can tell you is that it is male. In felix the white collar is slightly larger than in European stonechat and the under belly is slightly whiter. The rump is always white but this is a known variation in European birds. 

Eastern stonechat

This second stonechat seen less than 20 metres away from the first one is clearly a Siberian stonechat. It has the predominance of white rather than orange on its breast typical of the three races of Siberian stonechat normally found in Saudi Arabia. 

By the way many European birders think all Siberian stonechat are like this but the Chinese sub species for example has just as much orange on its front as any European stonechat. Hence one of the reasons I think splitting stonechat into three or more species is just a game!

Siberian stonechat

A couple of the female birds buff front bordered on all white! Incidentally, I think I can see some white at the edge of one of the tail feathers in this bird making it a armenica or  variegata sub species which are the most westerly of the "Siberian" sub species and the most likely to be seen here anyway.

south Arabian wheatear

It was good to renew my acquaintance with the South Arabian wheatear. I have seen this Arabian endemic once before at Taif (250 kilometres further north).

pied wheatear

It was well outnumbered in the Baha valley by passage pied wheatear which look superficially similar. The south Arabian wheatear were found in the more natural areas whereas the pied wheatear was seen in the cultivated places.

The yellow vent of the south Arabian wheatear isn't always easy to see but I found the amount of black on the neck connecting the black face with the black  on the wing was just as good a way of separating them. The connection is much larger on the south Arabian wheatear.

probable first cycle pied wheatear

The pied wheatear above has hardly any connection at all but it isn't the closely related black eared wheatear (unfortunately as this would have added to my Saudi list).

Isabelline wheatear

The third wheatear I saw but the most limited in numbers was Isabelline wheatear. I couldn't make any of them into red-breasted wheatear (Botta's) which is known in south west Arabia. I understand it prefers a drier and wilder environment (as well as altitude).

second Isabelline wheatear

I find wheatear identification very difficult despite the large amount of practice I am getting in Saudi Arabia. The one above is Isabelline wheatear but it looks quite different to the first one. The single black alula on the wing is often a help in identifying Isabellines.

Tomorrow's blog looks at the pipits and wagtail in the valley. Pipit identification there was every bit as difficult as wheatear but I got an extra lifer out of it!.

Meanwhile I'm off birding my local patch south of Riyadh today. There should be plenty of passage birds to write about later.

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