An Interesting Ficedula Flycatcher

Mark Warren

The 17th June 2011 had surprisingly turned out to be a pretty good day’s birding – one of the best of the spring in fact. The morning had produced the 5th Island record of Nightingale trapped and ringed at Holland House, a Shorelark near the Lighthouse, at least 2 Red-backed Shrikes and a few other odds and sods scattered about the Island. The Highlight, however, had been a fine pod of Killer Whales putting on a spectacular show off the North End. I was surveying the West side of the Island and the aforementioned delays meant I hadn’t left the Observatory to begin until about 3pm. A few hours in and I hadn’t really seen anything new I’d worked my way to the Upper Linnay garden (one of the largest in that section of the Island), and it was here where I disturbed a couple of Flycatchers. One presented itself quickly as a Spotted Flycatcher but the other was a female Ficedula, which I initially assumed from the flight views was going to be a Pied Flycatcher. This bird was remarkably elusive (the garden wasn’t that big!) and wouldn’t sit still for barely a second. After an hour long vigil with the bird during which time I’d only really had flight views, I had very much been given the run around – but once when I actually got binoculars onto the bird perched, I noticed what seemed to be a very large white primary patch and a paler area of the rump. This glimpse was worrying me and I began to wonder if the bird might be a female Collared Flycatcher but I simply wasn’t getting a good view. At this stage the only other thing I had noticed about the bird was that it looked quite long winged as it flew.

I decided to give up and head back to the Obs as the bird was becoming even more mobile and elusive, disappearing to some nearby chicken sheds as the owner of the croft kept coming out to do some gardening. On returning to the Obs for about 7pm and after a check of the Collins guide and a quick chat with Rael Butcher and Richard Else over dinner aroused further concerns that the bird might not be a Pied Flycatcher. The three of us returned to the garden for about 8pm (luckily in June there’s plenty of daylight on North Ron!). The bird continued to be elusive but in the first hour I had a couple of brief but good view and was able to add a few features to the pro Collared Flycatcher list. These being the birds general greyish, as opposed to brownish, overall upper-part colouration, what appeared to by a pale neck collar and also its jizz and general size and structure being a fraction larger – a bit more like that of a Spotted Flycatcher! RJE had also had a brief glimpse and agreed that it did indeed show a large white primary patch and appeared a “bit big” for a Pied Flycatcher. It wasn’t until we’d been there for over an hour that the bird showed for a more prolonged period of time to all of us, perching in the open on gates, walls and the ground that we had a proper chance to look at it – we all agreed that it was looking a bit Collared Flycatcher-like and it was time to get a mist net up!

We were quickly given permission by the owners of the house and a mist-net was put up while we continued to watch the bird. Frustratingly it began to favour the area away from the garden by the chicken sheds, but it did return to the garden twice only to fly over the mist net both times! We did however now start to get good views of the bird and a few record photographs were taken by RJE in the fading light. I now strongly suspected the bird was a female Collared Flycatcher – an opinion tentatively agreed upon by RJE and RJB – but as we couldn’t catch it, I knew it would be difficult to prove. At about 10.45pm we packed up the mist-net with the bird still feeding by the chicken sheds and gave up – returning home to consult further literature.  Overnight investigations of the available literature and on the internet by RJE led him to agree with me that the bird could quite likely be a Collared Flycatcher and so we decided to return to the garden the next morning to look for the bird. Paul Brown (after seeing RJE’s photos) checked it at about 7am, and we all tried again at about 10am but there was no sign. With the bird having been feeding until so late the previous evening it had presumably left overnight. The following description and discussion is based upon my observations in the field and examination of RJE’s photographs the next day.

Description

Size and Structure

As mentioned earlier the bird had a slightly different jizz than that I am familiar with for a Pied Flycatcher, this being much more reminiscent of a Spotted Flycatcher. A couple of times I saw the bird at close range perched on a gate and it appeared to have a longer and slightly sleeker profile, Pied Flycatcher being a ‘dumpier’ and more rounded bird. When it landed on the ground it seemed fairly stocky, with all of us agreeing at the time it always looked generally like a ‘large’ bird. It especially appeared longer winged, both when perched and as it took flight, and again I would have said in this respect more reminiscent of Spotted Flycatcher.

 

Underparts

The throat, breast, belly and under-tail coverts were all whitish in coloration, the throat being clean white and the rest of the under-parts being dirty white. This colouration added to the birds ‘cold’ appearance but is insignificant in establishing the bird’s identification.

 

Upperparts

These were distinctly grey toned and not brownish as in a female Pied Flycatcher. This was the case all the time and although the shade varied with different lights the colour was definitely pale greyish. This colouration gave the bird a significantly colder general appearance than the expected warm brownish colouration I’d associate with a Pied Flycatcher. The bird possessed a broad, subtly paler grey collar going from the sides of the neck and around the back of it. This framed the bird’s ear-coverts and head in general and was especially prominent on the sides of the neck. I first noticed this when the bird was in the shade of some trees and, although not visible all the time, it was especially so when the bird was against a dark background. This feature is readily visible in the side on photographs and it was equally prominent when viewed in the same posture in the field. I mentioned earlier that during my first viewing I believed the bird to have a pale rump. I looked for this during the return visit and failed to notice this feature. Between the three of us we concluded this was most probably an effect caused by the significant contrast between the dark, blackish upper-tail coverts (I’ll discuss them in detail later) and the grey upperparts. On close scrutiny of the photographs, however, I have since noticed that from a couple of the better ’side-on’ shots the bird does appear to show quite a large rump patch that is a paler shade of grey than the mantle – the same paler colour as the neck collar in fact.

Head/Bare Parts

The head was uniformly coloured grey matching the rest of the upperparts in colour. No significant marks were detected in the head area and the two white forehead spots (a flycatcher feature) were not seen, although in some of the photographs there is possibly some white on the forehead just above the bill, but this can’t be made out with any certainty. The bird’s bill was black and appeared no different in size or shape from that expected from a Pied Flycatcher. It had a small black ‘beady’ eye and the legs were typically short as in other Flycatchers and were black.

Tail and Uppertail Coverts

The tail was brownish black, a white edge visible on the outer webs of T6 and T5. The exact pattern of this was not noticed in the field and this appears to vary depending on which photograph you look at of the bird. In some the white running along the outer web appears to fall short of the tip of T6, but in others it could run along the entire length of the tail feather but it can’t be seen if it ‘wraps’ around the tip. We tried to look for at the exact pattern of the outer tail in the field but failed to determine it. The longest upper-tail coverts were also blackish, with the shortest being coloured grey as in the rest of the upper-parts.

Wings

This is the area of the bird which has proved the most challenging and interesting, and it’s important to stress straight away that both wings were different. The colouration of the wings was generally brownish grey, noticeably darker than the upper-parts but not as blackish looking as the tail. The bird was considered to be a first-summer based on this general colouration and worn appearing brownish primaries. Regrettably we only have photographs of the left wing, and most of the below is guesswork from our poor photographs.

Primary Patch

Beginning with the left wing, this had an especially prominent large white primary patch and is the correct ‘club’ shape for a Collared Flycatcher. It was always noticeably large in the field and from the photographs taken the following can be seen. It appears to reach over half of the primaries so it’s not unreasonable to suggest it is present from P10 to P4 at least, possibly further onto P3. According to Svensson, the primary patch of female Pied only goes up to 1.5mm beyond the tip of the primary coverts whereas in Collared it goes up to 6mm. In our bird it appears to go much further than 1mm, and much more like the measurement given for Collared. On the right wing however this primary patch was much smaller, although it was the same shape as on the left, evenly surrounding the primary coverts and extending the same amount towards the edge of the wing. I believe the patch on this wing would probably have been borderline between the two species in terms of the distance extended beyond the primary coverts and actual size.

Tertials and Greater Coverts

The exact pattern of the tertials was not noted in the field, but from the photographs of the left wing there appears to be a very narrow white line (much narrower than would be expected for either species) running along the outer edge of at least the longest two. There is also a large area of white at the base of the tertials but it is difficult to see from the photographs exactly which feather this falls on, possibly also being on the innermost greater coverts. The outer few greater coverts appear to be old juvenile feathers with a whitish tip to them; the next feather (s) in appears to be darker grey and we believe this is likely to be a freshly moulted adult greater covert(s). The inner few greater coverts, however, appear to be almost entirely white in colour, merging into what white was present at the base of the tertials and forming a large patch which has caused much confusion. It’s hard to determine exactly which feathers this white falls on. Originally we believed this must be moulted adult type greater coverts, in which case the bird would actually be a MALE flycatcher, but we now believe this is too short an area and the wrong shape to be greater coverts and is in fact the white at the base of the secondaries showing through, with the innermost greater coverts being missing!? On the right wing there was no such confusing information, with all feathers appearing to be retained juvenile type and the greater coverts having a whitish tip to them, and the tertials a narrow whitish edge to the outer web.

The bird was frustratingly not heard to call.

Discussion

The bird seems to have many pro-Collared Flycatcher features and from circulating the photos on the website and sourcing opinions from friends, etc. opinion is largely split. Roughly 80% of people I have spoken to believe the bird has to be a Collared, and about 20% are in the Pied camp. An expert on ficedula flycatchers also contacted us and also believes the bird has to be a Collared Flycatcher. The differing pattern of the two wings is however concerning and raises the hybrid possibility. The bird has not been submitted to the BBRC as we simply can’t be sure, but informed opinions with reference to this summary are of course welcomed.