April ID tips: Common and Lesser Whitethroats

Common Whitethroat. Photo by Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).
Common Whitethroat. Photo by Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).

The first bursts of song from either Common or Lesser Whitethroat are warmly anticipated by birders, but how can the less experienced separate these rather similar-looking species?

Common Whitethroat is the larger and has brighter and more contrasting plumage than its congener. Particularly notable are the rufous edges to the tertials, secondaries and greater coverts, along with a fairly long primary projection. The head is a blue-grey colour in the male, which makes the large white throat patch and prominent eyering stand out even at a distance, and the breast is suffused with pink. The mantle, though still greyish, has more buff mixed in, and the tail is obviously edged with white. Its strong-looking legs are straw coloured and the lower mandible is a pinkish yellow.

Females are duller than the males, recalling Garden Warbler, but also have the obvious rufous wing patch and contrastingly dark-centred tertials.

Lesser Whitethroat has a more monochrome appearance, its head appearing a darker grey colour, with even darker ear coverts giving it the hint of a mask. The sexes are similar. The back, mantle, wings and tail are a fairly uniform mid-brown, though a dark-centred alula can stand out in some individuals. There can also be a hint of rufous on the wing, but this is never anywhere near as obvious as in Common Whitethroat. The bill is thin and spiky, the legs slender and both these bare parts are a dark charcoal-grey.

Should either species call or sing, the ID should be in the bag: Common’s song is a much more variable and very distinctive scratchy warble, while Lesser’s is a more simple rattle, sometimes preceded by a short warble. Common’s call is a dry wheezy vair vair vair while Lesser Whitethroat has a dry tet, though on occasion Common can utter something similar.

Common Whitethroat by Steve Young Lesser Whitethroat by Daniele Occhiato

Male Common Whitethroat (Hightown, Lancashire, 29 April 2007). The rufous wing patch is obvious on this bird, as is the blue-grey head and pale bill base and legs. Photo by Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).

Lesser Whitethroat (Eilat, Israel, 29 March 2007). With just a hint of brown to its mantle and wings, this species is a monochrome affair. Note the mask-like effect of the darker ear coverts. Photo by Daniele Occhiato (www.agami.nl).

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