Thursday, 12 May 2016

A Caspian Stonechat drops in, by Amy Robjohns

I alluded to my love of patch birding in my first post on here, and how great it can be. Spending hours on one site and getting to know the ins and outs can be very rewarding indeed, especially when the unexpected happens…

As with most days of late, I set off down to Hill Head (part of my wonderful patch) early on 10th May, without checking the weather, and arrived at around 6am. My plan had been to check the beach and seawatch in the hope of the easterlies bringing Skuas in. I soon realised the weather had thwarted my plans, with visibility very poor and little of note on the beach. What to do next? The idea of heading up the canal path was cut short by the impressive number of snails (mostly white-lipped) and moths (E. argentella) along the vegetation and fence line by the road, so I set about counting them, as you do… At number 300, a rather striking Stonechat hopped up on the fence; a perfect photo opportunity!

Caspian Stonechat by Amy Robjohns
Caspian Stonechat by Amy Robjohns
My first thought was that I hadn’t seen a Stonechat around the scrub by the road for some time. It was also a very striking male – dark, black-ish upperparts with a thick white neck patch. The orangey colouration on the underparts seemed paler side on, and didn’t extend nearly as far as I expected. The rest of the underparts were white. I briefly pondered for a second, aware that it wasn’t an ordinary Stonechat but it then flew off back into the scrub and I lost it. In that brief flight, I caught a glimpse of the rump – wow. Large white rump!

I never did see it again, though admittedly I didn’t look as I was soon distracted by something else. It was then time to leave and finish some coursework, remarking to Ken Martin how nice it would be if a mega would turn up in Hampshire. Little did we know… Pictures were uploaded to Twitter and Facebook, along with emailing them to Dave Wallace and Dan Houghton – two locals whose email addresses I happened to have – and the news of a “possible” Siberian Stonechat was put out on Hampshire’s Going Birding site to alert people to its presence and ask for advice. I knew Dave was likely be about, so might have been able to investigate further, and was hoping he and Dan could offer their views.

It soon became apparent that, as I suspected, it wasn’t a standard Stonechat, but views of the underwing were needed, along with the rump and tail. I returned at lunch determined to confirm the ID but failed to locate it. Luckily, Dave Stevenson was on duty, so I asked if he could keep an eye out for the bird and try to get the much needed underwing views/footage. He soon got back to me confirming it did indeed have black underwings – excellent! By this point, I was feeling rather satisfied (and shocked) that it was a Siberian Stonechat, so put the news out and got back to work. I hadn’t forgotten that Brett Spencer had mentioned on Twitter the need to check the tail to rule out Caspian Stonechat, but work sadly had to take priority.

That evening more locals visited, and it was only when checking Facebook that I noticed Mark J Palmer’s photos of its tail. Wow - mega!! Himself, Dan, Simon Ingram and Dave Ryves had managed to see the tail (and being far wiser immediately cottoned onto what the significance of the tail meant), and get the necessary photos to confirm it wasn’t just “any old” Siberian Stonechat, but a Caspian Stonechat!

A day that began as seeming like a slow birding day, turned into a day I’ll never forget. So what have I learnt? You never stop learning in birding, and it’s always good to ask for help and advice from the wiser birders; the obsession with patch birding and checking the stonechats (I’d convinced myself there would be a Siberian some time by the road!) paid off; and always count the snails – they might lead to something better!!

Thanks must go to all on Twitter and Facebook who commented on the bird, and the locals - Dave S, Dave R and Mark for getting the necessary video footage and photos to get it’s true identify, and also Simon and Dan for suspecting it was more than just a Siberian Stonechat. It’s been a fantastic year on patch, long may it continue!

Amy Robjohns, @Amythebirder