Skip to content

Stonechats: complex or misunderstood?!

Common Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male in early March in NW Spain (Galicia)
Common Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult breeding male in early March in NW Spain (Galicia) showing the ‘rich,burnt orange-brown feathering’ on the breast, which ‘on most individuals extends onto the belly and flanks (Ref. 9)

Stonechats are common birds which many people will recognise, but when you start to dig a little deeper, they turn out to be a maddeningly complicated bunch of races or subspecies which vary subtly with age, sex and region. The taxonomy also seems to vary from bird book to bird book!

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male non-breeding plumage, in mid Oct in Galicia, Spain
Common Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male in non-breeding plumage, in mid Oct in Galicia, Spain

I am not a very gifted bird watcher! I like birds which are willing to sit still in front of you for a while, whilst you try to work out what they are! Stonechats fit that bill, but then it turns out that there are different races, and you can get demoralised trying to identify them!

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female in late April in Spain. Note the 'dark throat and white neck patches set off against a dull orange-toned breast' (Ref. 9)
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female in late April in Spain. Note the ‘white neck patches set off against a dull orange-toned breast’ (Ref. 9). The dark throat is turned away in this photo.

As I understand it, the rather similar looking Stonechat races were originally divided into three big species, an African Stonechat, a European Stonechat and an Asian (or Siberian) Stonechat (1). This system of three separate species still seems to be the one used by Wikipedia (2).

I am no expert, but this system appears to have broken down recently – or perhaps there remains disagreement? – as a result of all the different subspecies within these separate continental regions. So according to the influential publication, Handbook of the birds of the world Vol. 10, the bird we call the Stonechat or Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus), is now recognised as being a complex of 24 different subspecies (3). That’s quite a bundle, covering birds from Ireland to Japan, Finland to South Africa. According to (Collar, 2005), ‘all continental forms of [The Common Stonechat] are retained here as a single polytypic taxon’ (Collar, 2005). I.e. one big group. Surely, it will get split up in the future? Well be that as it may, there are usually only two or three types of interest to us here in Europe.

1) The Common Stonechat (subspecies S. torquatus hibernans) [also called S. rubicola hibernans by some authors (1) and just Saxicola torquatus by others (4)] which occurs in Ireland, parts of Great Britain and in Brittany and along the coast of Portugal (a sort of Atlantic marginal distribution; more on this later).

2) The Common or European or Continental Stonechat (subspecies S. torquatus rubicola) [also called S. rubicola rubicola (1) (4); or the European stonechat (Saxicola rubicola] on Wikipedia (5)] which occurs across Europe from Spain, France and Italy, westwards and down into Greece and Turkey as well as along the coast of NE Africa. A broad, mainly mainland distribution. All photographs here are of this subspecies (I think!).

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female in late April in Spain. Note the 'dark throat and white neck patches set off against a dull orange-toned breast' (Ref. 9)
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female in late April in Spain. Note the ‘dark throat and white neck patches set off against a dull orange-toned breast’ (Ref. 9)

There is a so-called ‘Eastern Stonechat’ (4) which was called the Siberian Stonechat (S. maura) (1) but is now referred to as Saxicola torquatus maurus, which occurs on the eastern fringes of Europe, for example in E. Finland and N and E European Russia (3). There is another subspecies of so-called Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus prezewalskii) which many British birdwatchers will be familiar with seeing in S E Asia if they have birded out there (e.g. Thailand) during the winter season (6). Finally, there is a fourth subspecies (Saxicola torquatus variegatus) which occurs in the E Caucasus area E to lower R Ural and S to NW Iran; non-breeding in NE Africa (7).  There are some excellent photographs and videos of some of these subspecies on the Internet Bird Collection, which shows the locations of all the different photos (7).

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) breeding male with ring (Cabo de Bares, Galicia, NW Spain) early April
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) breeding male with ring (Cabo de Bares, Galicia, NW Spain) early April

All of the photographs shown in this blog were taken in NW Spain, in the Province of Galicia. More specifically, they were taken on the northern coast of Galicia, along the Rias Altas, either at or near the town of Santa Marta de Ortigueira or at Bares (a prominent Cape nearby). This is important (at least to me!) as this is within the area supposedly occupied by S. t. rubicola, but very close to the coastal zone along the western Iberian seaboard reportedly occupied by S. rubicola hibernans! According to the recently published book, The Birds of the Iberian Peninsula (8), ‘the two races [i.e. subspecies] are poorly defined, intergrade and are not safely separable in the field’. Similarly, Urquhart & Bowley (2002) state that although the hibernans subspecies is marginally paler than rubicola, differentiating themwhere the two subspecies meet is virtually impossible in the field’. So, if expert birders cannot separate them, I am rather hesitant in claiming these images for one subspecies. That said, I will call them S. t. rubicola until such time as someone of authority and more experience of this tells me they are otherwise. It all leaves me wondering how anybody ever worked out their distributions and how reliable they actually are. I think I am going to have to work this out for myself!

 Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male in early April in Galicia, Spain

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male in early April in Galicia, Spain

Happy to say, Common Stonechats are a relatively common species, with an estimated 2,000,000-4,600,000 breeding pairs in Europe, equating to between 6,000,000-13,800,000 individuals (BirdLife International 2004). This may be an underestimate, as according to Eduardo de Juana & Ernest Garcia (2015) there may be as many as 7.7 million Common Stonechat individuals just in Spain (8). They certainly seem to be very abundant in Spain, popping up (literally) in a wide range of different habitats from the coasts to the mountains.

 Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male sitting on a gorse bush in late April in Galicia, Spain

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male sitting on a gorse bush in late April in Galicia, Spain

I like seeing Stonechats when I am out birding or taking photographs. I enjoy the way the breeding males appear on the tops of small trees and bushes, proclaiming their territories in squeaky song. I also like the way the ‘loyal’ females – anthropomorphising strongly here! – pop up nearby, often just below the males; a confident pair defending their patch.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female in early April, Galicia, Spain. Note dark throat which can darker as the spring progress according to Ref . 9.
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female with ring in early April, Galicia, Spain. Note dark throat which can darker as the spring progress according to Ref . 9.

So there is nothing else for it. I am just going to have to wander down the Iberian coast – from Galicia into Portugal – looking at Stonechats and seeing if I can see a transition from one form or subspecies to the other. Sounds like a good excuse for a jolly!

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male on the ground in Galicia, Spain. Note broad white neck patch and white extending up the breast.
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male on the ground in Galicia, Spain. Note broad white neck patch and white extending up the breast.

Rather late into writing this blog, I came across the excellent article in British Birds by Magnus Hellström and Mats Wærn (9). Although their focus is primarily on the Siberian Stonechat, there are lots of excellent photographs of S. t. rubicola of both sexes. There is also a very useful may map showing the 8 races which occur in Europe and Asia.

I also came across another interesting article by David and John Cooper, on WordPress this time (10), showing that the ‘Continental Stonechat’ – as they call S. t. rubicola – can also occurs along the south and east coasts of Britain. So the plot thickens, and perhaps there is much more of a mosaic pattern in the distribution of these different subspecies than the books suggest. Scope for more birding, especially along European coastlines.

Finally, a word on migration. Some Stonechats stay where they are for the winter (sedentary) whilst other migrate down to north Africa. Others move down from the mountains to spend the winter on the coast. My feeling, although I am not certain, is that these Common Stonechats in northern Spain do not migrate very far. There are always Common Stonechats near the coast all year round. Nevertheless, some Iberian Stonechats are not sedentary according to Eduardo de Juana & Ernest Garcia (8) and ‘may winter south of their natal areas’. Stonechats ringed in Spain have also been recovered in FDrance and Britain (8) but presumably these were ringed during their southern migration and did not fly northwards to winter! Birds are flexible and adaptable and such movements may vary from season to season.

In conclusion, I would say that what at first was rather difficult and confusing turns out to be interesting and exciting. I will never look at Stonechats again without doing a quick check to see whether they are the race or subspecies I was expecting to see. I will also go looking for Stonechats in some of the transitions zones to see whether I can spot any changes from one subspecies to another.

1. Urquhart, E., & Bowley, A. (2002): Stonechats. A Guide to the Genus Saxicola. Christopher Helm, London. ISBN 0-7136-6024-4

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxicola

3. Collar, N. J. (2005). Family Turdidae (thrushes and chats). Pp. 514-807 in J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott & D. Christie, eds. Handbook of the birds of the world, 10. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.

4. Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edition, Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström. Published 2010 by HarperCollins.

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_stonechat

6. http://orientalbirdimages.org/search.php?Bird_ID=2539

7. http://ibc.lynxeds.com/species/common-stonechat-saxicola-torquatus

8. Eduardo de Juana & Ernest Garcia (2015).  The Birds of the Iberian Peninsula. Christopher Helm, London. ISBN Number: 978-1-40812-480-2

9. Magnus Hellström and Mats Wærn (2011). Field identification and ageing of Siberian. Stonechats in spring and summer. British Birds 104, 236-254. http://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/V104_N05_P236%E2%80%93254_A.pdf

10. Continental Stonechats. http://birdingfrontiers.com/2011/07/12/continental-stonechats/

rcannon992 View All

I am a retired entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: