ISABELLINE WHEATEAR – new for Beijing

Back in April 2012 I found a wheatear at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, on the shore of Guanting Reservoir.  It showed exceptionally well for about 2-3 minutes before being flushed by a Merlin and flying high to the northwest, never to be seen again.  Fortunately I was able to capture a few photos before it vanished.

Isabelline Wheatear, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012.  Isabelline Wheatear, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012.

For context, any wheatear is notable in Beijing.  Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka, 斑鵖) is the most frequent – it probably breeds occasionally in the capital in small numbers.  There is only one previous record of Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti, 漠鵖), at the same site in 2010.  Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe, 穗鵖) has not been recorded for at least 30 years.  And there were no previous records of Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙鵖).

After some consideration of the identification, it went down in my notes as Beijing’s second Desert Wheatear, a female.

Fast forward to three days ago when I received an email from Killian Mullarney, who had been searching the internet for images of female Desert Wheatear.  One of the first photos he found was mine from April 2012.  Killian, one of the authors of the Collins Bird Guide, immediately spotted that it was not a Desert Wheatear but an ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙鵖).  Very kindly he attached a series of annotated photos that explained why.  The result is that my 2012 wheatear has now been upgraded from a ‘second for Beijing’ to a first.  Not a bad trade.

Isabelline-Desert Wheatear
A comparison of Isabelline and Desert Wheatears by Killian Mullarney. Bottom photo of Desert Wheatear by George Reszeter, used with kind permission.  By the way, George’s excellent website – www.birdsofeurope.co.uk – is thoroughly recommended for superb images of European birds.

I am immensely grateful to Killian for taking the time to correct my identification.  Not only did he do so with much grace but also explained in great detail why it was an Isabelline.  Through his knowledge I have learned a lot about this difficult pair and now have no excuse to mis-identify another, if I am fortunate enough to see one..

As he says in his email,  “I picked up a copy of the Collins Bird Guide just to remind myself of how well (or otherwise) we covered the Isabelline/Desert pitfall…. Not very well, it seems! The first sentence of the Desert Wheatear IDENTIFICATION text states ‘Rather compact with comparatively big head, short neck and tail.’ Oh dear….I guess judging relative head size is a subjective thing, but it just goes to show how circumspect we all need to be with our field guides!”

Thank you Killian!

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4 thoughts on “ISABELLINE WHEATEAR – new for Beijing”

  1. Well done Terry (and Killian!), If my memory serves me correctly we had an Isabelline Wheatear at Beidaihe back in the 90’s.
    Dick

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    1. Thanks Dick… although I feel a little sheepish accepting any congratulations about a bird I misidentified!! 🙂 Almost everything recorded at Beidaihe ought to be possible in Beijing.. and given the difference in observer coverage between the two places over the years, we have some catching up to do! See you in May for the exciting recapture of those pekinensis Common Swifts!

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  2. Congratulations Terry, I must admit I would have plumped for Desert Wheatear too – it seems to have an all-dark tail…… We live and learn

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