Regular readers of my column in Bird-Spotter's World will be aware of the recent stir caused by a pale Stonechat in Kent. We at BSW were as surprised as anyone to learn that DNA sampling had proved the bird to be a very rare Stejneger's Stonechat, from some far-off foreign place. After all, we had all thought it was exactly like one of our Stonechats, but just rather washed-out looking, as if its mother had laid one too many eggs and had run her pigment gland a bit dry. Even the cognescenti were surprised. While many of them pointed out afterwards that they had always known it was some kind of Siberian Stonechat thing, they struggled to reconcile its plumage with their understanding of what a Stejneger's Stonechat should look like. And then, only yesterday, a major new development unfolded...
But I shan't spoil it by revealing all here in the introduction! Instead, let me tell you that this morning I was privileged to catch up with Michael FL McIntyre, leader of the twitching fraternity, and asked him to untangle this intriguing episode for us.
DW: Michael, thank you so much for talking to us today. Before we tackle the Stonechat case, do you mind if I ask you a cheeky personal question? I know that many readers refer to you simply by your distinctive initials MFLM, but I'll bet very few know what the 'F' and 'L' stand for. I certainly don't! Would you be kind enough to enlighten us?
MFLM: Of course, Davina. They stand for Fulsome Largesse. It's almost as if my parents knew that a famous comedian would one day hijack my name, and so made sure that we could never be mistaken for one another. And we aren't. Ever.
DW: Thanks Michael. Lovely names. So, the Stonechat. What happened?
MFLM: Well, Davina, it was found late last year on Romney Marsh in Kent, and its pale plumage got birders worried that they might be missing out on something.
DW: What do you mean?
MFLM: Although it looked like a washed-out Common Stonechat there was always the possibility that it might be something rarer, because rare birds are often pale and frosty-looking. But unfortunately its plumage was no help at all and didn't match anything in any of the field guides. In cases where a bird's identification features don't correlate with any rare species known to man, it's now accepted policy to test its DNA. This strategy has given us a lot of nice ticks. So a local expert collected a faecal sample to send off for...
DW: What, poo?!
MFLM: That's one way of putting it, Davina, yes. Faecal matter is chock-full of genetic material and much more amusing than a tissue sample. In addition, whereas collecting, say, a good feather for analysis might involve catching the bird and subjecting it to all sorts of unneccessary stress, getting a faecal sample simply means waiting until the bird perches on a post and then scaring it just the once, very loudly. It's all over in a flash and the bird is hardly any the wiser.
DW: Fascinating. So what did the DNA test prove?
MFLM: It proved that the bird was a Stejneger's Stonechat.
DW: Ooh, that's interesting. I've heard that word pronounced so many different ways, and your way is different again! How do you say it?
DW: I'm sorry Michael, could you say it phonetically for me?
MFLM: Of course, Davina. It's 'Stedge-knee-jerz'.
DW: 'Stedge-knee-jerz'? Okay, thank you. I feel so silly when I don't know the correct pronunciation. I always used to say 'Curl' Bunting until someone put me right last week! Ha ha! Anyway, what happened then?
MFLM: Mayhem, Davina. Mayhem. As you probably know, Stejneger's is really rare and looks nothing like the Kent bird. Some birders immediately burned their field guides. Those who had seen Stejneger's elsewhere gave thanks. Those who hadn't, well, they simply had to bow to the omnipotence of the DNA Gods and go to Kent for the tick.
DW: The tick? But I thought Stejneger's was just a subspecies?
MFLM: Well, Davina, it's true that some authorities are behind the times on that one and don't yet consider Stejneger's a full species, but even those birders who subscribe to such archaic views will have gone to see it for insurance.
MFLM: That's right. It means they can't tick it just at the moment, but hope to be able to one day. Preferably before they die. Then they'll get it as an armchair tick.
DW: Really? Twitchers do that? Amazing. What's an armchair tick?
MFLM: It's a tick you can mark on your list long after you've seen a bird, when it has finally been given full 'tick' status by whatever authority you subscribe to. And you can do it right there at home in your favourite armchair. Admittedly some twitchers use a sofa, or sit up in bed to do it, but it's still officially called an armchair tick. Personally I get very few of these. The authority I follow allows you to tick absolutely everything right now.
DW: So, Michael, take us through the latest developments.
MFLM: Well, January 1st arrived, and the bird was still there at Dungeness. This meant another trip for the year-listers. Let me tell you, Davina, they were the grumpiest-looking bunch you've ever seen! Because by now there were loads of birders on the internet getting seriously heretical with the DNA Gods, even suggesting that there might have been an error and it must surely be just a Common Stonechat! Who wants to have travelled hundreds of miles to Kent for one of those?! Me, I kept out of it. As you know, Davina, I don't like controversy.
DW: Of course not...
MFLM: Anyway, lo and behold, and we get this message from the DNA Gods that it was all a big mistake - the Kent Stonechat was just a Common after all! Someone had mixed up the DNA samples on their journey to the altar. Mortals call this 'human error', of course.
DW: So what can we learn from this episode, Michael?
MFLM: I don't think we've seen all the fallout from this yet. I heard a rumour that the whole thing was a prank by some lacky at the Genetic Temple, just to see how many birders would blindly go and see a bird on the say-so of a DNA identification, in spite of a ton of plumage evidence to the contrary. I am glad to say that I wasn't fooled for a second. My several journeys to Kent for other birds enabled me to drop in on the Stonechat and confirm my suspicions. And the field guide ashes on my compost heap aren't mine...
DW: Michael, many thanks.