Starting to see Red

Record numbers of Common Redstarts have been moving through Northamptonshire over the past few weeks, peaking today with a double-figure count at Stanford Reservoir.

It has been an amazing autumn for Common Redstarts, giving rise to speculation that some may have bred locally. While this may have been true for one or two birds at least, there have been too many to account for the odd, out of range breeding pair and with the picture seemingly mirrored nationally, it appears this species has enjoyed a productive breeding season.

Apart from single males at Moreton Pinkney on 22nd June and at Lamport on 26th June, the first record of the autumn came from Arbury Hill, west of Badby, where an adult and a juvenile were seen as early as 2nd July, perhaps indicating local breeding. Denton Wood similarly provided views of a juvenile on 11th July, again fuelling speculation of local breeding. What was assumed to be the same bird was seen there again on 18th July and from 28th July through to 1st August and again on 10th and 17th August. It was a male and the fact that its post-juvenile moult had steadily progressed each time it was seen would indicate it was the same individual throughout.

Juvenile male Common Redstart, Denton Wood, 11th July 2019 (Steve Brayshaw)
.Juvenile male Common Redstart, in moult to first-winter, Denton Wood, 28th July 2019 (Steve Brayshaw)
.Juvenile male Common Redstart, in moult to first-winter, Denton Wood, 1st August 2019 (Steve Brayshaw)
First-winter male Common Redstart, Denton Wood, 17th August 2019 (Steve Brayshaw)

Following the Denton Wood bird, there have been approximately 43 records, accounting for something like 80 individuals. What an autumn! Here are some of those birds.

Adult male Common Redstart, Stanford Res, 27th August 2019 (Chris Hubbard). Largely black face with prominent white supercilium, combined with greyish-fringed greater coverts age this as an adult male.
Adult male Common Redstart, Stanford Res, 27th August 2019 (Chris Hubbard)
Male Common Redstart, presumed first-winter, Stanford Res, 27th August 2019 (Chris Hubbard). Rather dull black facial area with considerable white flecking, along with obscure supercilium point to first-winter.
First-winter male Common Redstart, Stanford Res, 27th August 2019 (Chris Hubbard). Same comments apply as above. Also thickly buff-bordered juvenile greater coverts, with adult-like inner one or two grey-edged feathers age this bird.
First-winter female Common Redstart, Stanford Res, 27th August 2019 (Chris Hubbard). A tricky one to age. Looks like an adult but the ringers have aged it as a first-winter.
First-winter female Common Redstart, Stanford Res, 27th August 2019 (Chris Hubbard)
Male Common Redstart, probably first-winter, Harrington AF, 25th August 2019 (Alan Coles)


Retrospective rubicola?

Stonechat is a passage migrant and winter visitor to Northamptonshire, also having bred on a handful of occasions. Although they are popular photographic subjects, the vast majority of these birds vary little in appearance, present no identification problems and rarely attract scrutiny as a result. Some, however, stand out as being obviously different and one such individual, found by Gary Pullan, was present briefly at Daventry Country Park last month. Gary has kindly provided details.

A male Stonechat was extremely obliging on the dam at Daventry CP on the morning of the 12th March. This bird was striking for two reasons, firstly, it is a genuinely scarce bird at this site and secondly, it showed an extensive white rump.

Possible ‘Continental Stonechat’, Daventry CP, 12th March 2018

I suspected it may be a ‘rubicola-type’ bird, sometimes known as ‘Continental Stonechat’, the race which occurs in continental Europe but variabilities within our own race hibernans can blur the picture and make it difficult to be 100% positive.

This individual showed a vivid white, and mostly unstreaked, rump which can be seen in the poor phonescoped images. In flight this was very striking and when first glimpsed at distance, alarm bells rang and the thought of Siberian Stonechat briefly entered my head.

It is clearly not Siberian but supporting features that it may very well be rubicola are the large, white collar patches, the tone of the upperparts which lacked the deep rufescent tones, appearing quite grey-brown and the underwing appearing quite dark grey.

The weather conditions could also be a subjective supporting factor in its occurrence as we had just experienced our first, and most extreme, visit from the so-called ‘Beast from the East’. Unfortunately, the scrub the bird was frequenting was being cleared that very day and for that reason, it didn’t linger. 

The two Stonechat races (or ‘forms’) intergrade on the near-continent (BWP) and it has been suggested that there is a cline of darker plumage to the north-west and brighter plumage to the south-east and that hibernans is possibly invalid.

‘Continental Stonechat’ rubicola is not officially on the British List. However, rubicola-like birds are recorded regularly in south-east England and occasionally elsewhere in Britain and birds with this appearance also form part of the breeding population in the south-east. It is therefore possible that rubicola is frequent in Britain or that the intergrade zone on the near-continent actually includes south-east England as well (BBRC).

This is the second record of a Stonechat ‘showing characteristics’ of rubicola in Northants. The first – also found by Gary – was at Boddington Reservoir on 2nd May 2013.