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African Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus felix)

A male African Stonechat perched atop a juniper tree near the edge of the Raydah Escarpment in the Asir Region. A female was also present.

African Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus felix) is a resident breeding bird of the southwest highlands of Saudi Arabia and western Yemen. It is an endemic subspecies of the widespread and polytypic species complex of subsaharan Africa. Due to its endemic status and the ongoing taxonomic debate around the Saxicola species limits, particularly when the nearest subspecies to S. t. felix is the Ethiopian Stonechat (S. t. albofasciatus) with its distinctly pied appearance, African Stonechat is one of the prime targets for visiting birders to the Kingdom. This endemic subspecies could potentially be elevated to full-species status.

A male of the albofasciatus subspecies of African Stonechat in Ethiopia. This is the nearest subspecies to the population in Arabia and distinctly different.

African Stonechat can be found year round in open woodlands of juniper and acacia with patches of scrubby vegetation above 2,000 meters (Jennings 2010). It is locally common around Al Soudah in the Asir Region. According to Jennings, it ranges along the Sarawat Escarpment from "south of 19.5°N to just south of Ta'izz" in Yemen, which sets the northern limit of its range near Sabt Al Alayah. However, a summer record from Wadi Shabraqah, near Al Bahah (20°N), and the availability of similar habitat as far north as Taif (21°N) suggest that it likely occurs further north than previously known.

A male African Stonechat perched atop an acacia tree in the canyon at Soudah Creek in the Asir Region. Both the male and the female were staying close and giving an alarm call, suggesting that there was a nest present.

African Stonechat is one of several Saxicola taxa that occur in Saudi. European Stonechat (S. rubicola) and three subspecies of Siberian Stonechat (S. maurus) can also be seen. According to the Birds of Saudi Arabia, European Stonechat is a passage migrant and winter visitor, mostly in the north, east, and west of the Kingdom and Siberian Stonechat a common and widespread winter visitor. Indeed, Jennings states that Siberian is the commonest wintering Saxicola taxon and notes that wintering birds have been recorded in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula "within range of S. t. felix, but mainly in [sic] the Tihama [the Red Sea coastal plain] and at lower altitudes than the winter range of S. t. felix". A search of observations of Siberian Stonechat in eBird reveals that this species has been reported widely throughout the Kingdom with nearly two dozen observations within range of African Stonechat. However, roughly two-thirds of those observations were from the highlands, quite close to where African Stonechat has been observed. A few of these may, in fact, have been misidentified African, but several have been confirmed as the Caspian race of Siberian Stonechat (S. m. hemprichii), which can be more readily separated from the other Saxicola taxa in the region by the white upper sides to its tail, giving it a wheatear-like appearance in flight. With such observations in mind, any Saxicola taxon found in the southwest highlands above 2000 meters should not be presumed to be African Stonechat.

The hemprichii race of Siberian Stonechat is a fairly common wintering bird in Saudi Arabia and one of the easiest Saxicola taxa to identify on account of its wheatear-like tail pattern. Several have been reported from the southwest highlands as well as the Tihama in the past decade.

This male was originally but cautiously put down as African owing to the location (Asir) and elevation (about 2,100 m). However, it is now under review as a possible Siberian owing to the habitat where it was seen (drier, more open valley with less trees) as well as the GISS and longer primary projection.

The same goes for below 2000 meters. While Jennings suggests there is a "winter range" of African Stonechat in Saudi, eBird observations, including several personal observations of my own, suggest the species is sedentary, with pairs reported from known locations and suitable habitat elsewhere throughout the year. This fits with Jennings' description of African Stonechat's mating system. This species is socially monogamous and "pairs can be seen together all year round [and may] defend their home territory year round" (Jennings 2010). As far as I am aware, there is no evidence of even post-breeding or winter dispersal among immature birds to lower elevations or other habitat types. For this reason, several recent eBird reports of African Stonechat from the Tihama were flagged for review as likely misidentified Siberian Stonechat. Of all the Saxicola taxa occurring in Saudi, African and Siberian are the most difficult to separate in the field, especially divorced from contextualizing factors, such as habitat, time of year, pairs on territory, etc.

A female Siberian Stonechat from the Tihama in the Jazan Region. The pale, contrasting throat and pale eyebrow indicate this species.

Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of information on the separation criteria of African and Siberian Stonechat in the regional field guides, such as the Birds of the Middle East, or online resources, such as Birds of the World, which has yet to update the text in its species account for African Stonechat. However, I will distill below what I have uncovered so far in the hopes that this post may help reduce future misidentifications.

A male African Stonechat from the wooded canyon at Ain Al Dheebah in the Asir Region. Compared to the Siberian Stonechats above, the African clearly appears more compact with a disproportionately larger head.

As should be clear from above, elevation should not be relied upon to separate African and Siberian, particularly from September through April, when the latter has been reported from the region. Birders should carefully consider the habitat in which the bird is being observed. African is nearly always found in or near junipers or mixed juniper-acacia woodlands, where males will often sing from treetops, whereas Siberian generally utilizes more open habitat. For example, African have been reported reliably from Ain Al Dheebah and Soudah Creek, both of which are fairly wooded and narrow canyons nestled in the hills around Al Soudah. I would never expect to find a European or Siberian Stonechat in such an enclosed habitat. African has also been seen near the escarpment edge at Al Soudah but again always near stands of junipers. From the same region, Siberian Stonechat has been reported from Wadi Reema, Abha Dam, and Atwad Dam. All three spots are significantly more open and notably lacking in junipers.

A male Caspian Stonechat (S. m. hemprichii) in Balqarn, northern Asir Region. This bird was in very open terrain at around 2,100 meters.

This is not to say that both couldn't occur in the same habitat. The campground atop Al Soudah Mountain, where I've seen African, offers a large swath of open parkland that could certainly attract migrant Siberian Stonechats. If outside the breeding months of May through August, birders to open areas in the highlands should get photo documentation to support identification, ideally focusing on the following features: white half-collar (if male), face and throat (if female), underwing and rump, as well as dorsal views showing the primary projection.

An African Stonechat perched in a juniper tree at the campground on top of Al Soudah Mountain. In the open area nearby I saw an early migrant Whinchat and Northern Wheatear. It's not clear if this is a female or a first-winter male.

Some descriptions of S. t. felix call attention to the extent of the reddish coloring on the underparts of males. The Birds of the World notes that S. t. felix "has central breast to upper belly orange-chestnut". Likewise, the Birds of the Middle East states that the "deep red on underparts more restricted". Photos of males from late winter through the summer months indeed show birds underparts that match these descriptions in terms of the extent of the coloring. However, images of males in the fall show birds with significantly more coloring on the underparts, extending to the white collars, flanks, and lower down the belly, quite similar to wintering Siberians. In flight, both species also show dark axillaries and underwing coverts, a useful feature for separating European from Siberian but certainly can contribute to misidentifications between African and Siberian.

An African Stonechat from Soudah Creek in the Asir Region showing dark underwing coverts, a useful feature for separating from European Stonechat but not so much with Siberian.

As for the upperparts, male African has been described as darker above than Siberian, but this appears to be most noticeable during the breeding season, when both species won't be co-occurring. Rump color and marking is another feature that is virtually identical between the two, even in the variability, except for the possibility that female African's rump may appear slightly more marked compared to a virtually unmarked rump on a female Siberian. Again, useful for separating from European Stonechat, which typically has a well marked rump, but confusion causing when confronted with a bright, unmarked rump on a Saxicola in the Saudi highlands.

A female or first-winter male African Stonechat showing a marked rump.

A non-breeding male African Stonechat from Soudah Creek in the Asir Region showing bright unmarked rump and shorter primary projection than Siberian

So for separating the males, besides habitat and behavior (i.e. perching on trees, particularly junipers) there appears to be no one feature that truly jumps out. However, I came across a discussion on BirdForum on this very topic, and one user mentioned that the primary projection is shorter on African Stonechat. This makes sense. Siberian Stonechat is a long-distance migrant, which typically translates into a longer, pointier primary projection whereas African Stonechat is a sedentary resident, not known for any significant seasonal movements. Images in Macaulay Library of both species show a difference in primary projection, supporting this observation. This difference contributes to the impression of African being more compact than Siberian. The overall GISS of both is that of a smaller, cuter S. t. felix with a disproportionately large head compared to a longer-winged, perhaps just plain longer, and more proportional S. m. maurus.

A male African Stonechat in breeding plumage from the edge of the Raydah Escarpment. The compact and big-headed GISS and short primary projection are obvious in this image.

Another probable Siberian Stonechat recorded at around 2,100 meters in the Asir highlands that was initially reported as African. The GISS is that of a longer, slimmer, and more proportional bird than African Stonechat with a longer, seemingly more pointed primary projection.

After comparing images online, it appears that separating females might be much more manageable. Female Siberians have a paler throat, which should contrast noticeably with the orange-buff coloring on upper breast and the rest of underparts. They also show a faint eyebrow starting at the beak and extending well past the eye. Female Africans actually look much more like female Europeans (Campbell per comm). They have a less contrasting throat, sometimes showing faint lateral throat-stripes, and they lack a noticeable eye brow. These features along with GISS, short primary projection, habitat, and the presence of a possible mate should be enough to confidently ID a female Saxicola in the highlands as S. t. felix. Anywhere else in the southwest, one would have to have clear photo documentation of the morphological features to confirm. This will be critical if it proves to be true that African Stonechat is indeed an elevational migrant in Arabia.

A female African Stonechat from Soudah Creek in the Asir Region showing a darker, less contrasting throat, a rather plain face with no noticeable eyebrow, and a short, more rounded primary projection.

While the throat on this female is brighter than the one above, the lack of a noticeable eyebrow indicates that this is an African Stonechat.

The relative brightness of the throat may be an effect of angle and light as this is the same female as above.

The GISS, longer primary projection, and pale eyebrow on this female, reported from same highlands location as

the males above, suggests that this is in fact a female Siberian Stonechat.

This female Siberian Stonechat from the Tihama near Jeddah is showing a pale, contrasting throat, faint eyebrow, longer, pointier primary projection than African, and a pale, unmarked rump.

This post is my first attempt at making sense of the Saxicola taxa occurring in southwest Saudi. Please feel free to comment or contact me if you can help further illuminate this topic for our readers.


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