Isabelline Wheatear

by Dani Lopez-Velasco.

In mainland Spain we basically have 2 big problems for finding rare passerines. First is the very poor coverage of the best areas due to very few active birders, and second is the lack of suitable islands/islets, which, as you all know, are usually the best places to look for these birds.

This means that scarce birds in the UK, like Yellow-browed Warblers or Red-breasted Flycatchers, are quite rare here, and birds like Dusky and Radde´s Warblers, or OB Pipits, are almost Megas, with less than 10 records ever.

For many years, it was assumed that the west coast of Galicia (in NW Spain), at least in theory and based on the large numbers of american waders, gulls and waterfowl that had been found over the years, should be good for north american passerines. However, due to the 2 problems commented above, only Yellow-rumped Warbler (20 years ago), and Buff-bellied Pipit have been seen. Not even a Red-eyed Vireo has been found (yet!). On the other hand though, the general assumption, for years, was that it shouldn´t be good at all for eastern/siberian birds, due to the area being much further west than, for example, the mediterranean coast of Spain, thus further away for these sibes to reach it.

However, a few years ago It became clear for some of us, after realizing that Kerry and Cork in Ireland, and Cornwall in the UK, both in the SW, were getting quite a lot of sibes, that the “land´s-end”, almost island-like effect, should also work over here.

So, with that in mind,  and inspired by, amongst others, the Punkbirders, I started scouting the NW corner of Galicia in search of an appropriate area to look for passerines. After a couple of trips, I decided that the area around Finisterre (which, translated into english, means land´s end), which is the westernmost headland in Spain, could possibly be the spot to look for both north american and eastern passerines. As for the latter,  I thought disorientated birds flying SW would see that the land (and Europe indeed!) ended there, and might probably stop, thus producing some sort of “bottle-neck” effect. The whole area should also be good for north american waders and gulls which could also keep us entertained, so I started visiting it in early October 2011.  The main areas to concentrate on  would be 2 fairly open headlands, a couple of beaches with dunes, bushes and trees, similar to many of the best spots in Ouessant, and a lagoon a bit further south.

Map showing the location of Finisterre, in the NW corner of Spain.

Map showing the location of Finisterre, in the NW corner of Spain.

On my first visit, no passerines were found, but as a consolation prize we found Spotted, Pectoral and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Not bad.  Next weekend saw me covering the area again, and, finally, a juvenile Rose-colored Starling (very rare here) was found. It seemed that the area could produce eastern birds then… I drew a blank on the next trip but later, on the last weekend of October, everything changed. On my second morning, I was lucky enough to find a Dusky Warbler, which was the first-ever non-ringed bird to be seen in Spain. Quite a lot of people came to see it, and at the same time, a Yellow-browed Warbler was also found at the same place.

Mar de Fora beach, in Finisterre. The dunes in the middle of the image hosted the Isabelline Wheatear, whereas the trees in the left hosted a Dusky Warbler and 5 YBW 2 autumns ago.

Mar de Fora beach, in Finisterre. The dunes in the middle of the image hosted the Isabelline Wheatear of this post, whereas the trees in the left hosted a Dusky Warbler and 5 YBW 2 autumns ago. This is probably THE place in Spain to look for north american passerines.

Over the next november weekends, a completely unprecedented in Spain 5 Yellow-browed Warblers were seen, together, in the same little forest. Jose Luis Copete and Ferran Lopez joined me on one of my trips and also found a Siberian Chiffchaff… And several Richard´s Pipits and Lapland Buntings were also found wintering in one of the headlands.

It was quite clear by then that the area was indeed  good for siberian birds (bear in mind that only 1-2 observers were covering a pretty large area!) and well worth the effort of traveling 300 km one way from my house on each trip. I live in the northern coast of Spain (Asturias), which is pretty good for passerines too, having found a nice selection of sibes so far, but of course over hundreds of days in the field, so i thought the Finisterre area should be better.

In December, no more passerines were found, but an adult American Herring Gull, the first for mainland Europe, was a nice self-find at the same place.

Last autumn I couldn´t visit the area more than a couple of times, so no conclusions could be made, the only thing of note being a self-found White-rumped Sandpiper, and an American Golden Plover, but sadly no passerines.

This year, I made my first trip to the area last weekend. And, on my first morning, I struck gold, finding a great looking and very showy Isabelline Wheatear.

As usual with finding rare birds, I was about to leave the beach (the same one that hosted the Dusky Warbler), when I decided to make a final check in the dunes. I had seen some Northern Wheatears earlier, but then I saw, with the naked eye, a very pale bird on top of a dune. I got my bins on it, and instantly realized it was an Isabelline Wheatear, and a very pale individual indeed! I took some shaky record shots,  and then called some friends.

First record shot I took of the bird, just as I found it. The very pale impression and upright stance were very obvious

First record shot I took of the bird, just as I found it. The very pale impression and upright stance were very obvious

The bird was seen very well through the day, favoring a boardwalk, where it sat for long periods of time, allowing birders to get very close, just a few metres, to it.

The general impression and structure changed dramatically depending on the bird´s posture. Here, it doesn't look particularly long-legged. Note the faint and diffuse centres to the wing covers and tertials.

The general impression and structure changed dramatically depending on the bird´s posture. Here, it doesn’t look particularly long-legged. Note the faint and diffuse centres to the wing covers and tertials. Dani Lopez-Velasco

Check how long-legged looks here, compared to the previous picture!

Check how long-legged looks here, compared to the previous picture!

Bill in Isabelline Wheatears is usually noticeably longer and stockier than on Northern.

Bill in Isabelline Wheatears is usually noticeably longer and stockier than on Northern. Dani Lopez-Velasco

The bird did show well...

The bird did show well… Ageing, and sexing, in the autumn is not easy. The relatively dark lores could point towards a male, and as they arent well marked, perhaps a 1w male. Any ideas or comments would be most welcome! Dani Lopez-Velasco

My story with Isabelline Wheatear in Spain is kind of funny. I “found” the first for mainland Spain in the internet, on a picture labelled as Northern. Hours later (!!), I identified in the field the second one, but it had been found by a good friend of mine, who wasn’t sure about what it was. No self-found then. So it was about time to really find one in the field. 🙂

As a conclusion, it´s pretty clear that both the Finisterre area and the whole NW and W coast of Galicia is very good for siberian and eastern birds,  better than the Cantabric coast, which would be “closer” to them.  Isabelline (Daurian) Shrike, Olive-backed Pipit, Booted Warbler, etc… have all been found within the last few years in the west coast of galicia, with only less than 10 birders actively looking… and here´s a very eye-catching fact: Of the 5 mainland Spain Isabelline Wheatear records, 4 (!) have been seen in the NW Coast of Galicia, in a 40 x 40 km triangle, with Finisterre in one of the corners. And the same triangle has hosted 4 Desert Wheatears…

I wonder what will be next… A Palla´s Leaf-Warbler is long overdue over here!

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4 Responses to Isabelline Wheatear

  1. Congratulations Dani – a great find!

  2. olezoltan says:

    Great find indeed – and pretty cool to discover a good site for rarities in Spain.

  3. Mark Tasker says:

    Nice one Dani – well done.

  4. julian hough says:

    Great photos of a cool birder’s bird!

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