Monday, 26 November 2012

CSI Birding - DNA samples taken from Rhyl promenade suspect!

How times have changed............ This evening I sent off two samples of Desert Wheatear faeces collected today at Rhyl promenade. The samples are winging their way to Dr Martin Collinson (BOURC Chairman) who is the current expert on analysing bird poo to find DNA to assign birds to species, sub-species and races. Only a few months ago, Dr Collinson from the University of Aberdeen proved a putative Atlas Flyactcher (a first for Britain) at Flamborough was in fact a just a bog standard Pied Flycatcher, while just last week a few Siberian Stonechat feathers taken from one caught at Portland were analysed and proved to be Britain's first Stejneger's Stonechat!!
(a rather bedragled Desert Wheatear today - but which race?)

Hopefully the samples taken today will allow reveal where our Desert Wheatear has come from. A total of three different subspecies of Desert Wheatear have made it to the UK, however assigning a bird to a race in the field is not really safe.  Out of nearly120 individuals that have occurred here only seven of those have been assigned to race and these have been either shot, killed or trapped.  The Central Asian Desert Wheatear deserti has been proven twice whilst the North African Desert Wheatear homochroa has been recorded on four different occasions.  In addition there has been a single example of Kazakhstan Desert Wheatear atrogularis

(After a brief waith the Desert Wheatear duly obliged and let out the contents of its bowel)
Desert Wheatear breeds widely yet discontinuously across the arid and desert regions of North Africa from Morocco to the Middle East, north to the south Caucasus and across central Asia from central Iran and northern Pakistan to Mongolia and northern China. Some African birds are resident but many winter in the Sahara and Sahel region from Mauritania east to Ethiopia and Somalia. Asian breeders winter from the Arabian peninsula to north-west India.

The sample was duly scooped up and contained safely and is now winging its way up the the University of Aberdeen.
The first records drilled down to subspecies level in Britain are as follows:
  • Central Asian Desert Wheatear - male (shot) - Fair Isle, Shetland - 6 October 1928
  • North African Desert Wheatear - female (shot) - Spurn, Yorkshire - 17 October 1885
  • Kazakhstan Desert Wheatear - male (killed) - Pentland Skerries, Orkney - 2 June 1906
If the DNA is conclusive then the Rhyl individual will be the first assigned to race in Wales. My gut feeling is that the birds we get in autumn are deserti from a SE direction, with the spring birds more likely to be overshooting homochroa. We await the results with anticipation.

(thanks to for the information on Desert Wheatear races seen above - an intreresting blog and worth a read)


  1. Great work Marc! Hope me feeding a load of RSPB meal worms to the bird today didn't mess up Doc's results? Sub species "Sandy" perhaps? About right for Desert Wheatear. My money is on an eatern origin, very warm buff tones to rump and upper tail coverts. Birding has come a long way, who have dreamt you would be collecting poo?!

    Alan and Ruth - first of many Galapagos pics posted today.

  2. Reckon central Asian with warbler in Kent last week and timing.
    Got visions of you waiting with a wicket keepers glove on!

  3. Really interesting Marc! Nice one!

  4. Nice one Marc!
    Surprised at how many have been recorded from N Africa. Don't think there's ever been a N African Desert Warbler, and no Mourning or Red Rumped Wheatears, and v few Black and W C Black. I seem to remember there was a possible N African Desert Wheatear on Orkney last autumn, due its rather rufous rump and uppertail which made it look a bit like a Red Rumped.

  5. very intresting and we all await the results to confirm.... good work mate