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Short blog on Isabelline Wheatear - our bird of 2022!

Having only seen one new species of bird for my British list since 2013 (Brunnich’s Guillemot) apart from the Citrine Wagtail at Goldcliff locally earlier in 2022, the chance of seeing an Isabelline Wheatear was too good to miss. This is a species I’d seen in Cyprus way back in 1992 and I once found a possible at Gorleston in Norfolk, but sadly the views were limited and in poor light at dusk and the bird wasn’t present the following morning. So a twitch was justified, surely!

Isabelline Wheatear at Colyford Common, Devon, Boxing Day 2022. Note the narrow, buff supercillium that doesnt extend far behind the eye, broad black tail band and general pallid gey-buff appearance. The dark alula is just visible.

Isabelline Wheatear is a bit of a “Birder’s-bird” having a range of often quite subtle identification features that separate it from the most likely confusion species, a female Northern Wheatear. Any late-Autumn / early-Winter Wheatear is worth a close look, and the initial general-impression-of-size-and-shape (GISS) can be the starting point of finding something unusual. For Isabelline a largish-size and upright stance with heavier looking beak is often stated. However without anything else to compare it to, an isolated Wheatear at mid to long distance can be hard to judge. However what is notable is the general pallid colour of greyish-buff that doesn’t contrast between the upper and underparts, nor between the wing feathers and upperparts. Note that Isabelline refers to the colour, pale greyish-yellow.

Isabelline Wheatear at Colyford Common, Boxing Day 2022. Note the pale barring on the mantle, the dark alula, narrow, buff supercillium, and very pale underwing.

The Colyford Common Isabelline Wheatear present over Christmas 2022 and then re-found in early 2023 certainly looked largish at close range and quite heavy in build. It was an incredibly confiding bird allowing such close views that all the identification features could be seen well. A key feature is the dark alula (“bastard-wing”, at the wrist joint and used for trim in flight) which is isolated from any darker wing feathers by the pale wing coverts and bases to the secondaries and tertials. Then there is the tail pattern: a noticeably broad black band with a short “T”, much broader than on Northern but the short T is distinctive from a Desert Wheatear. The Colyford Isabelline Wheatear had noticeable pale edges to the mantle feathers, giving a finely barred appearance at close range, as well as pale buff edges to the tertials, increasing the pallid and uniform colouration in its general appearance. The last key feature is the supercilium, buffy pale stripe above the lores and extending over the eye, but narrowing and less extensive, less pronounced and less pale than on Northern Wheatear. A feature I wasn’t aware of beforehand was also noted from photographs afterwards: the extremely pale underwings, lacking the greyer tones of Northern Wheatear.

Isabelline Wheatear at Colyford Common, Boxing Day 2022. Slightly different angle of sunlight made the bird look darker.

Summed up, all these features made for an extremely attractive Wheatear and its confiding behaviour, feeding on or near to the boardwalk and down to about 15 feet away from us made for a truly memorable experience. This was Roo’s 411th GB species and was Bird-of-the-year for us!

Isabelline Wheatear at Colyford Common, Boxing Day 2022. Note the dark alula is now clearly visible (compare with the first image taken moments before this one!).

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