Sunday, 22 May 2011

Interesting Wheatear in South-eastern Turkey

It has been a while since my last post because I have been on my travels again, this time to Central Southern and South-eastern Turkey. The trip was an Ornitholidays birding trip, and I was the co-leader, the other being Mitko Petrakiev from Bulgaria. Our trip lasted for 10 days, 30th April to 9th May, and was based around four main areas, The Goksu Delta, The Aladaglar Region and the Taurus Mountains, the valleys and plains around Gaziantep and finally Birecik, the home of the Bald Ibis. Over the next couple of weeks I will put together a few posts with some of the highlights of our trip, but I will start with some pictures that I hope will bring about a discussion of an interesting wheatear that was breeding in hills around Birecik.

We were on our last full days birding and had spent the morning birding a valley near the small village of Ilhan Koyhu, when Mitko pulled over and informed us that whilst researching the trip they had found an interesting ‘black’ wheatear, which after much debate they considered to be a form of Mourning Wheatear Oenanthe lugens, known as ‘Basalt’ Wheatear. They had posted many pictures on various bird forums and based on the pictures, the general consensus of opinion was that it was indeed a 'Basalt' Wheatear, although a few people commented that it may in fact be a dark form of Variable Wheatear O. pictata opistholeuca. Now I don't profess to be an expert on either species, and have never seen either the 'Basalt' form of O. lugens or O. p. opistholeuca, therefore my opinion is based solely on seeing this bird and my reference library which includes The Birds of the Western Palearctic Vol. 5, Handbook of Birds of the World Vol. 10, Field Guide to Birds of the Middle East, Collins Bird Guide (2nd Edition), Identification of European Passerines and the Advanced Bird ID Guide. In addition I have reviewed various pictures which are currently available on the web.

In the first instance I would like to apologise for the quality of the images, the bird was fairly distant and it was an extremely hot day, therefore I have had to crop images and they have suffered badly with the heat haze. Anyway here are the images.

1. Putative Variable or 'Basalt' Wheatear showing White extending to
Behind Legs on Undertail Coverts

2. Putative Variable or 'Basalt' Wheatear

As can be seen this is an all black wheatear, with the exception of a white rump, upper and under tail coverts and vent, and variably white tail feathers. Given the look of the bird, there are obviously four potential candidates; Black Wheatear O. leucura, White-crowned Wheatear O. leucopyga, Mourning 'Baltic' Wheatear O. lugens and Variable Wheatear O. p. opistholeuca. Black Wheatear can be eliminated since it is a large wheatear which is restricted to the Iberian peninsula and Northern Africa and is generally a non-migratory species, and White-crowned (black) Wheatear can be eliminated since it does not usually show a complete tail band.

3. Putative Variable or 'Basalt' Wheatear Showing Complete Tail Band

So that leaves Mourning 'Basalt' Wheatear and Variable Wheatear. 'Basalt' Wheatear is usually restricted to the basalt desert in Southern Syria and Northern Jordan and is described as having an all black body and pale bases to the remiges, with the white on the undertail restricted only to the vent. The sexes are similar, with the female being slightly duller. First year birds are considered to be duller than adults with pale-fringed brownish wings. 

O. p. opistholeuca is described as resembling Black Wheatear but smaller and with a smaller head. It has brownish flight feathers with slightly more white on the lower back, and the white on the underparts extends to just behind the legs.

4. Putative Variable or 'Basalt' Wheatear

5. Putative Variable or 'Basalt' Wheatear

6. Putative Variable or 'Basalt' Wheatear

Looking at the pictures, 1 and 2 clearly show that the white begins just behind the legs and extends to include the vent and under tail coverts and the flight feathers in pictures 3, 4, 5 and 6 are brownish (although this could be because the bird is a first summer male; I am not sure of the moult strategy for either species). However, in pictures 3, 4 and 6 the bird seems to show pale inner webs to the primaries, which would suggest 'Basalt' Wheatear. But looking at the photos it is possible to clearly see some show pale inner webs on one wing and not on the other, and therefore I think that this is just a trick of the light, it was intense sunshine on that day and therefore any sheen on the feathers would show as white. In addition 'Basalt' should only show white on the inner web at the base of the primaries as with Mourning Wheatear, the extent of white on the primaries seems to extent down the length of the primaries, again suggesting it is the light. 

Having reviewed all these features and looked at numerous pictures I think this is a male Variable Wheatear, but I have spoken to Mitko and he and a few others who have seen the bird, are convinced that it is a 'Basalt' Wheatear, for one main reason, and that is that it does not show white underwings which Mourning usually does. So if any one out there has an opinion and more experience than me on these species I would be interested to hear your views.

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