Strange black-and-white wheatear in the Netherlands

On famous Dutch rarity island-Texel,

Monday 21st of May 2012

by Nils

Frits and Trudy Stoekenbroek find and photographed an odd but very interesting looking male wheatear.

Back at home, five days after their find, Frits and Trudy tentatively identified their bird as a Finsch’s Wheatear and upload the photographs on a popular Dutch site for field-sightings. On that Saturday I was on Texel when the pager said: Pied Wheatear, Texel, there and gone, five days ago…, including a link to pics of the bird. I quickly looked at the available pictures on my mobile phone… “Wow, what is this!, I shouted (OK in Dutch and to be honest not exactly the same words in translation…). Some pics indeed showed a male Pied-like looking bird with a strange shaped mask but the fight-shot clearly showed a narrow white ‘back’; so Pied, no way! It does not felt right for any of the two black-eared’s either, but what else? At that moment resident Texel-birder Arend Wassink (‘Mr Kazakhstan’) (see his wonderful website on Kazakh birds http://birdsofkazakhstan.com/) phoned me to discuss the bird. He immediately came up with the option that the bird looks good for a hybrid Eastern Black-eared x Pied Wheatear, an option that indeed seem to explain the strange mix of features, but it had to sink down by me for a while…

To put you in our place on that moment, here the most relevant pics, what do you think (before reading further?)

You will probably have noticed the strange combination of ‘key-features’ of this bird which are summarized below, and maybe you have found even more.

•Long extension of black from the throat-patch towards -and seemingly connecting with- the mantle/shoulder.

•Almost completely black-and-white plumage (some peachy wash is just visible on the centre of the lower breast).

•Very little black above the eye and above the bill.

•Narrow white central upperparts sandwiched between completely black scapulars.

•Sharp-dressed, adult looking. However the clear moult contrast in the greater coverts (long uniform black inners against short, pale tipped and browner outers) in addition to the brownish primary coverts is indicative of a first summer plumage.

•Not extremely long primary projection.

•Tail-pattern typical of Pied, Cyprus, Eastern and Western Black-eared Wheatear.

This combination of characters does not seem to match a certain species, and indeed most are a mix of (Eastern) Black-eared and Pied features or something in-between… Of course hybrids do not necessarily show a perfect mix of both parents characters.

Hybridization seem to occur quite commonly in certain areas and there seem to be even a stable hybrid population! See the reference below taken form Wheatears of Palearctic – Ecology, Behaviour and Evolution of the Genus Oenanthe. Panov, E N 2005. Sofia-Moscow kindly send by Arend Wassink.

‘Hybridogenous populations have been studied in northern Iran, eastern and north-western Azerbaijan, in Dagestan, and at Mangghyslak peninsula and westernmost edge of the Ustyurt plateau in Kazakhstan. Hybridisation seems to continue in the first four areas, where individuals of both species penetrate into the hybrid zones. In Kazakhstan there is no geneflow from melanoleuca into the hybrid zone anymore’.

We had some discussion about the bird already and have send the pics to Andrea Corso and Magnuss Ullman for comments (see Magnus’s great paper on the separation of Western and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears in Dutch Birding 2003: 2), which were both very helpful. The option hybrid Eastern Black-eared x Pied Wheatear seemed indeed the best one but I am still amazed about the appearance of this bird!

Does anybody know records in W-Europe of this hybrid-type or birds looking similar to this one?

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4 Responses to Strange black-and-white wheatear in the Netherlands

  1. Hybird or not, it is still a handsome bird. Excellent photos too.

  2. I am of the opinion (humble though) that the throat patch is indeed a little out of bounds for Black-eared, but there is a possibility this is just accidental shown on these pictures and that in real the throat patch was unconnected. See for example this bird.
    The amount of black above the bill is not unusual as other pictures during a google search will show, as is the amount of white between the shoulders for BEW.

  3. Andrea Corso says:

    Hi Jan

    you are perfectly correct in pointing out that melanoleuca often in many photos – and indeed even in the field- seems to show connected black shoulder+throat…. and also that the black pattern on shoulder and over the bill base and the lores is variable…I have a long series of photos of skins taken in Italy (therefore not even in the East where gene introgression with Pied could be likely and high) where some birds have limited or even no black over the bill base or over the lores… (usually however still a lot over the eye)…having also seen several of those in the field with my birding team the MISC .
    Indeed, i wrote to Arend and Nils thats this worried me and make me confused as all the best characters were not fully and clearly visible….
    Still, some structural pattern worry me for a pure melonoleuca, as the pattern of the rear throat patch, the tail pattern of the black T (which is almost NEVER like so in real melanoleuca in such pale and nice plumage and age/sex) etc.
    When surfing photos on Google also, one shoudl consider where the photos have been taken and IF the were indeed correctly labelled ! Your posted bird for ex. is from an area where hybridisation have been reported often or at least gene flow in the past for ex.
    However, if you aks me if I’m 100% confident with this bird ID I would say NO, but I would favour an hybrid possibility (that could only be confirmed then by DNA :-((((

    Ciao
    Andrea

  4. nilsvanduivendijk says:

    Hi Jan and Andrea,
    Many thanks for the (extra) input!
    For me the greatest problem regarding to pure Eastern B-e W remains that this apparently FIRST SUMMER bird has such a clean black wing incl scapulars and such white crown, mantle etc. (as Andrea expressed above and earlier), regardless if the throat-patch is connected to the wing/scaps or just not.

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