Sunday 4 December 2011


After deliberating for over a week we finally decided to brave the elements and head over to Shropshire to see if we could track down a female DESERT WHEATEAR.  The bird had been present in the area since last Friday when it was initially thought to be a PIED WHEATEAR until the identification was clinched the following day.

We arrived on site at a blustery Titterstone Clee Hill during early afternoon to find up to seven Raven tumbling around the summit in the powerful and bitterly cold north-westerly wind.  I could have quite easily sat in the car and admired these wonderful birds all day but a rarity was beckoning just a short distance away amongst the old quarry buildings.  

Desert Wheatear habitat - the abandoned quarry at Titterstone Clee Hill

At 533 metres above sea level this particular hill is said to provide one of the best all round views in the whole of England.  Despite the murky conditions we could easily make out the Malvern Hills to the south however on a clear day it is also possible to see Snowdonia to the west, the Peak District to the north east, the Cotswolds to the south east and the Brecon Beacons to the south west.  The scenery is quite stunning and the area is well worth a visit whether you see any birds or not.

An impressive view south towards the Malvern Hills

There were a few other birders milling around when we arrived but unfortunately there was no sign of the bird after it had flown up towards the summit earlier on in the afternoon.  Almost immediately though Nadia picked up a small, pale passerine flying towards us before disappearing out of sight.  After a careful, quiet stalk towards the general area Nadia then picked the DESERT WHEATEAR feeding happily just a few metres away.  Despite it being very mobile the bird showed extremely well at times.  We managed to get a few other visitors onto the rarity but no other birders tended to hang around for long due to the Arctic wind chill factor.  Braving the elements I hung around until the bird once again flew off high towards the summit.  I headed back to the car before hypothermia had chance to kick in enjoying the sky-dancing Ravens as I went.

DESERT WHEATEAR (female) - Titterstone Clee Hill, Shropshire
Photo kindly provided by Dave Hutton

A total of three different subspecies of DESERT WHEATEAR have made it to Great Britain however assigning a bird in the field to a specific race is not really safe.  Out of circa 120 individuals that have occurred here just seven of those that have either been shot, found dead or trapped have been pinned down properly.  The Central Asian Desert Wheatear deserti has been proven twice whilst the North African Desert Wheatear homochroa has been recorded on four occasions.  In addition there has been a single example of Kazakhstan Desert Wheatear atrogularis.  It is open to debate but I would suggest that all birds which have appeared during this autumn's influx are more than likely to originate from the Central Asia bearing in mind the recent conditions that have brought us our first acceptable Eastern Black Redstarts in a while.

DESERT WHEATEAR (female) - Titterstone Clee Hill, Shropshire
Photo kindly provided by Dave Hutton


As touched on above this species 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 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  


  1. Interesting factoids Archie - I too saw the bird along with the Ravens on the same day. Absolutely stunning views down to 3-5 metres, did'nt hang around due to the wind but one or two that did were rewarded with Snow Bunting, Short Eared Owl and Hen Harrier at various stages during the day. I am only familiar with Desert Wheatear from birding trips to Maroc where i assumed they were resident? Presumably subspecific ID is down to wing formulae and/or other 'in-hand' subtleties......

    Laurie -

  2. Crikey, it is another one of these insane Real-ice-cube TM jackets. Keep up the good work Archie, br, Mike