Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus)

The Siberian stonechat (Saxicola maurus), also known as the common stonechat, or Oriental stonechat, is a species of Old World flycatcher (Muscicapidae). Siberian stonechats measure about 12.5-23.5 cm in length. This stonechat is found in scattered bushes in an open country setting. On prominent bush tops or wires, the Siberian stonechat perches upright, flicking its wings and tail.
In most cases, it occurs in a solitary or family setting. In the breeding season, it occurs in most temperate Asia, from between latitudes 71°N in Siberia southward to the Himalayas and southwest China, and westward to eastern Turkey and the Caspian Sea. Occasionally, it can be found breeding in Finland, but mostly in Russia in the far northeast of Europe.
During winter, the bird migrates between southern Japan, Thailand, and India, as well as west to northeast Africa. The migration of these birds takes them as far west as western Europe and, exceptionally, as far east as Alaska in North America. Males of all races have black or blackish throats and heads, white necks, and white ‘scapular’ patches (which are actually inner wing coverts). In all races except Caspian and Transcaucasian, the tail is entirely dark (except for the orange breast).
During spring, when the plumage is worn, brighter colors are most apparent. However, the feather tips of fresh plumage are usually brownish or buffish, which obscures both the color and the pattern. There are three groups of races that can be separated for field identification purposes because the racial variation is confusing. Male western races (rubicolas and hibernans): Orange underparts are usually extensive in males, particularly in darker Hibernians (Western Europe). The rump patch appears white when fresh, especially in southern populations, while it is whitish when worn (i.e., in spring).
Females typically have a dusky or mottled throat with a lacking or indistinct supercilium, but there are some individual variations, with some females having an almost pale grayish-buff on the throat (but more rufous below and darker above than W Siberian); the rump patch is also variable but always has some weak streaking. There is little chance of confusion with other members of the genus.
Compare Whinchat with the highly localized Stonechat of the Canary Islands. In comparison to western races, the West Siberian race (maura) is slightly smaller and has slightly longer wings. A male adult has an obvious white rump patch (usually streaked in western forms, even though the patch appears very pale), a blacker underwing (hard to see in the field), and generally has a more contrasting appearance when worn, with darker upperparts and whiter lower underparts, contrasting with an orange breast patch (smaller but more defined than in western races); white’ scapular’ patches and neck patches are more extensive, the latter often so wide that they almost touch the nape.
In autumn, the upper parts of feathers are broadly fringed with sandy-buffish (fringes in western races are narrower and reddish-brown), giving them a significantly paler appearance. As compared to western forms, the white rump patch, sides of the neck, and lower underparts are washed with orange-buff; these characteristics combine to make the bird noticeably ‘different’.
Females’ first years differ distinctly from western forms with a paler overall coloration with a whitish throat and a distinct pale supercilium, making them reminiscent of similar-age Whinchats, but the supercilium is not as distinct as it is in the latter; the upperparts are weakly streaked and spotted, and the sandy fringes at the secondaries and tips at the greater coverts form distinct pale wing panels and wing bars that contrast with dark primaries.
In flight, Whinchat is distinguishable by a whitish (worn) or pale rufous (fresh) rump patch, which is striking, and by the absence of obvious white at the tail base (note that in autumn, the white on Whinchat’s tail can be tinged buff and thus less noticeable). This race has some white at the very base of the tail, but the tail coverts practically conceal it.
Under good viewing conditions, fresh tails have narrow sandy fringes on the outer feathers; western tails have a browner fringe and are less noticeable. While the juveniles are’spotty’ and very similar to western races, the rump patches are orange-buff and unmarked except for some faint streaks. There is a slight difference in size and wingspan between the Caspian and Transcaucasian races (armenica and variegata). In both races, white is visible at the base of the tail, with variegata having white that extends about halfway down the tail (in armenica, the white is usually not visible over the basal quarter).
These forms of males are very similar to maura; however, they have very dark orange breasts that contrast with the whiteness of the underparts, a white rump patch that is even more extensive, and (usually) very obvious white in the tail. Variegata’s tail pattern can even resemble that of a wheatear in flight. The fresh color of the body is obscured by very pale sandy-buff feather tips, giving the bird a ‘wheatear-like’ appearance. They are less striking, more like female Siberian forms, but usually show some sandy buff at the base of their tails.
Typical Siberian stonechat calls include a strident 'chak' and clear 'wheet', often combined as 'wheet-chak-chak'.
Typical Siberian stonechat calls include a strident ‘chak’ and clear ‘wheet’, often combined as ‘wheet-chak-chak’. Photo credit: Imran Shah
During autumn, fresh-plumaged males have brown or sandy feather fringes above their black heads and warm-toned underparts. Females with fresh plumage are buffered below those with plumage on. The head and upper parts of the juvenile are spotted. It may not be possible to safely age females in the field because first-years resemble fresh adults of their respective sexes.
Females of eastern races can be aged by the contrast between retained juvenile wing coverts with brown centers and new black-centered feathers (especially those with lesser coverts); they may also show male characteristics on the head and throat, but their lores and chin are not as black as adults’. Males have brownish, heavily worn flight feathers, primary coverts, and outer greater coverts that contrast with fresher, blacker remainders of coverts in the first spring and early summer.
Typical Siberian stonechat calls include a strident ‘chak’ and a clear ‘wheet’, often combined as ‘wheet-chak-chak’. In short, bouncing song flights, the song is richer and more varied, with a thin, scratchy warble reminiscent of Common Whitethroat. Since no intergradation has been observed, it has been proposed to split off Siberian Stonechat S. maura from Caspian/Transcaucasian Stonechat S. maura. Transcaucasia, however, may show some intergradation based on recent observations. The IUCN does not consider it a distinct species, but it is widespread and common and would not be considered threatened.
As far as geographical variation is concerned, it is significant and complex; differences are discussed above under Identification. Five or six races (hibernans, variegata, and maura. In our region, there are two types of races. Most of Europe, NW Africa, Turkey, and the Western Caucasus are covered by the race rubicola. In the British Isles, Brittany, and NW Iberia, the race hibernans is darker and more rufous below, with some intergradation where it intersects the rubicola range. Race maura breeds in NE European Russia eastwards, passing through the Middle East (and possibly wintering there).
In Central Siberia eastwards, some vagrants are suspected to belong to the poorly differentiated race stejnegeri, which is more rufous below than maura. Race variegata breeds in the Volga steppes and E Caucasus region, passing through the Middle East (and possibly wintering).
Race armenica breeds in eastern Turkey, Transcaucasia, and the southern Caspian region, crossing the Middle East during passage or in winter.  There is a local abundance of this species in terms of habitat. Mountainsides, moorland, steppe, coastal cliffs, and islands are all types of open bushy country. In addition to breeding season, cultivation is also discussed. In the Himalayan foothills of Bhutan, migrants can sometimes be seen foraging in fields and pastures over 2,000 meters above sea level, but most migrate south for the winter.
The Siberian stonechat (Saxicola maurus), also known as the common stonechat, or Oriental stonechat, is a species of Old World flycatcher (Muscicapidae).
The Siberian stonechat (Saxicola maurus), also known as the common stonechat or Oriental stonechat, is a species of Old World flycatcher (Muscicapidae). Photo credit: Imran Shah