1 Oct 2014

1 Oct 14 - An Interesting Opportunity To Learn About A Siberia Rarity

There was an interesting blog post from Dorset Birder, Brett Spencer, yesterday about a brown backed Lesser Whitethroat at Portland Bill yesterday which Brett is confident is a blythi race, which is the Siberian subspecies. Following this Martin, posted the hand photos last night on the Portland Bird Observatory website and classified it as a putative blythi. Both of these sets of photos are worth looking at. But unfortunately, this bird has caused some tension between Brett & Martin as a result of comments published on the respective blogs/websites. So here is some background & my views. Hopefully this won't offend either party as it's something I wouldn't want to fall out with either of these first rate & very experienced Dorset Birders. Secondly, I hope you two guys can quickly resolve this disagreement. It's right for Birders to get really passionate about Birding, but the frustration side needs to be directed against the illegal hunting problems we have & other threats to Birds, not to other Birders. What I will also say is this is a great opportunity for many of us to learn about a tricky species & that's an opportunity that not worth missing.
blythi Lesser Whitethroat: Initial views. All photos have been cropped & sharpened, but there have been no other changes to colour balance or tone
To cut a long story short, it turns out this Bird was originally trapped on the 22 Sep and the bird looked interesting in the hand and a dropped feather was sent off for DNA analysis. It was still around on the 29 Sep, but it wasn't until it was retrapped that day, that it was realised it was the same individual as seen on the 22 Sep. While it looked interesting, I think the Portland Bird Observatory website missed an opportunity that evening to post the photos & draw a bit more attention to this individual while it is still a putative blythi, especially as it was then clear it was sticking around. I can understand the lets wait and be certainty approach. But I also prefer a come & look at it while you have the opportunity approach, even if it's only a putative identification, as it is still a chance to learn some new stuff. Especially, as the likelihood is by the time there is certainty, there is also a strong probability that the individual will be much further South.
Blythi Lesser Whitethroat: It showed best on the East side of the Obs quarry, but I was sitting quietly on the West side
Talking to Martin this afternoon, it sound like there have been a number of other similar looking individuals like this in recent years later into the Autumn, so I can partly understand the wait & see approach, as it's not unique. But I also think on this occasion, this individual is different for the following reasons. Firstly, it has been trapped so there are excellent photos in the hand. Secondly, there is the probability that there will be feedback from the feather sent off for DNA analysis. Thirdly, it is showing well at times in the Obs quarry in the current good weather, allowing further opportunity for in the field photos & field observations without disturbing the individual. Therefore, while there have been other individuals that have been putative blythi Lesser Whitethroats, this has more chance of being confirmed. I think it is also a good opportunity for other local Birders, who like me haven't seen this subspecies before to go along & enjoy it & learn more about their identification. I sure Martin is right that they might be more regular later in the Autumn. But Siberian Chiffchaffs in Dorset have been discussed for quite a few years as putative, but after the combination of field observations & ringed birds, sound recordings & Birders going to seeing them, talk about them & getting their eye in on their identification features, more are now getting found. The result is we now are more confident Siberian Chiffchaffs are an uncommon, but regular Dorset visitor. Maybe we will be able to say the same of blythi Lesser Whitethroats in 5 or 10 years time.
blythi Lesser Whitethroat
So look at the excellent photos on both Brett's blog & the PBO website, but ignore the emotive words. Then go and have a look at this very interesting individual. It certainly looks striking in the field. Also have a read of the excellent Lesser Whitethroats section in the new Birding Frontiers Challenge Series Autumn book, which has lots of bang up to date detailed information as well. I won't tell you how to identify blythi as Martin Garner & contributors (including Brett) have already done a better job in the Challenge book. Given my lack of previous experience of blythi, I'm going to stick to putative blythi for now, but from what I've read I think Brett will be proven right on his definitely a blythi statement. But credit to Martin & the Obs team for also believing it was worth sending the photos off for DNA analysis.
blythi Lesser Whitethroat
blythi Lesser Whitethroat: Eventually, it flew into the Brambles in the NW corner of the Obs quarry where it was much closer
blythi Lesser Whitethroat: A bit of quiet pishing & it popped out
blythi Lesser Whitethroat
blythi Lesser Whitethroat: At last a decent shot of the bird
blythi Lesser Whitethroat
But again, I would say go & look at it, use the opportunity as a learning experience & if nothing else, like me you will be better informed if you are fortunate to bump into one on your own patch. Finally, if there are any people who haven't seen this individual, who wants to be critical & take the view of you should have identified it for certain by now, as I don't want to travel a few miles to see it, when it's not certain, then you are missing the point of being a Birder (go & start watching trains).
The Obs quarry with the Obs (the old lighthouse) in the background: the bird favoured the base of the bushes below the telegraph pole
After completing the post, I went back to look at my photos of Lesser Whitethroat complex taken in the Winter in India. This photo of a blythi Lesser Whitethoat looks pretty similar. Based on range & Rasmussen's recent book & older Indian books it would be a blythi.
blythi Lesser Whitethroat: CEDO, Gujarat, India (!9 Jan 14)
There are also photos of Desert Lesser Whitethroat & Hume's Lesser Whitethroat on this post from India. Note, this is based upon the recent treatment of this Lesser Whitethroat complex by Rasmussen & other Indian books. They now might be at odds to the very latest DNA information in Birding Frontiers Autumn book, regarding Desert Lesser Whitethroat. But I'm sure this is a subject that will still be in some flux in 20 years time across parts of the range of the Lesser Whitethroat complex.

Just been sent this link to a really interesting article on the Birdguides website of a Siberian Lesser Whitethroat watched & ringed in Tynemouth in Jan 14. Well worth a read.

Breaking news on the Portland Bird Observatory website on 29Oct 14 has confirmed that this was a blythi Lesser Whitethroat. I have removed the word putative from the photos, but left the rest of the Post unchanged. I'm glad for the opportunity to see this individual in the UK, especially as it was a good opportunity to learn more about them & test out one of the chapters in the Birding Frontiers Challenge Autumn book.