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The Collared Flycatcher in Easington, East Yorkshire, 11th May 2019

Collared Flycatcher, Easington, Yorkshire, (© Robert Dowley)

From Steve Webb:

I started early, birding various sites in the Kilnsea/Easington area for migrants. The day looked promising as the first paddock at Sammy's Point held Black Redstart, Redstart and Spotted Flycatcher. I then moved on to Easington Cemetery. It's a site I do not check out that often because the trees are so high and it's often too windswept. However on the 11th it was calm, so worth a look.

The first bird I saw was a female Ficedula flycatcher. What immediately caught my eye was the amount of white at the base of the primaries, almost reaching to the wing-edge. It was clear that this was either a hybrid Pied/Collared, or a Collared Flycatcher - or perhaps a Semi-collared!! At Spurn we communicate by 2-way radio but my radio battery was flat. So I rang John Hewitt, just after 0900, to inform him that I had an interesting flycatcher and could he put it out on the radio. Not having a decent camera I waited nervously for others to arrive with cameras. Just after I spoke to John the bird went missing. When reinforcements did arrive the bird was still missing. After a few more tense minutes it was then relocated by Paul French. With the camera shots it quickly became clear that it was not a Semi-collared. The rest of this article was written by Paul.

Paul French writes:

After John Hewitt put out over the radio Steve’s news of a female Ficedula showing a lot of white in the wing, myself and Georgia French were the first to arrive at the cemetery. I relocated the bird high up in the canopy, and my first thoughts were that this was not going to be easy! The amount of white in the wing, while clearly greater than a normal Pied, was not the huge club I was hoping for. Also, the bird did not seem overly grey, and was not as striking as many female Collareds that I see on a semi-annual basis. This was going to be a job for the camera, so I set about trying to document it as best I could, while grabbing views of it at regular interviews to check the field appearance. As the crowd slowly gathered, I had built up a few instructive shots and was checking them on the back of the camera. It looked good, and the extent of white in the primary bases including a white spot at base of P5 was particularly supportive, but with no literature to hand I posted a few “boc” shots to the local Whatsapp group. Responses from Tim Jones, Jack Ashton-Booth and Adam Hutt were all very encouraging, and the news was put out as a possible. After watching it for a wee while longer, I decided to head home and analyse my pictures. It was quickly obvious that this bird showed many convincing features of Collared Flycatcher. With the Ficedula there are rarely absolutes, but I felt confident enough to put the news out to the locals that it was a Collared, and recommend that it be put out to the bird information services as such. There will quite rightly be questions against this bird, and I attempt to answer these in the captions to the photos below.

A grey collar could be seen at certain angles. This was first noticed in the field when the bird leaned forward, then looked for on the photographs. Happily, a few of them showed it. The grey collar seems likely to be caused by the paler bands midway along the nape feathers of the Collared Flycatcher, but concealed by overlaying feathers. The rump is also noticeably grey, and the rump and collar together form a frame to the browner mantle. The browner mantle is perhaps a negative against the identification, but this is just one of two potentially negative points… (© Richard Willison (top) and Tony Broome)
Even from below, the white spots at the base of the primaries are easy to see. Here, a distinct white spot at the base of P4 can be seen, and the base of P3 seems to show a paler area, even if it is not actually a spot. Note that the spots are on the outer web of the feather only. On Pied Flycatcher, the white spots do not normally start until P6 or P7, sometimes P5 and only extremely rarely have a concealed spot on P4 (Svensson, 1992). (© Paul French)
The tail is freshly moulted and adult, with broad rounded tips. From below, it shows a white outer web to T6 (the outermost feather) that extends 2/3 of the way along the feather, before petering out to a thin white fringe that continues around the tip of the feather. There is also a whitish “window” visible on the inner web of T6. This combination is good for Collared Flycatcher, while Semi-collared Flycatcher shouldn’t show any white windows and Pied Flycatcher shouldn’t show the white curling around the tip. (© Paul French)
From below again, this time the right wing. Even with the overlap of the primaries, the white spots shine through. A small rectangular spot is clearly visible at the base of P4, and as in the left wing, a paler area at the base of P3 is also visible, although again this does not manifest into a spot. (© Paul French)
The uppertail coverts, while being darker than the rump, are not black or even approaching blackish in colour. This may serve as a useful feature to separate it from Atlas Flycatcher, which should show more blackish uppertail coverts. (© Paul French)
White is clearly visible on the outer web of T4, unlike in most Pied Flycatchers. Again, white is also clearly visible curling around the tip of T6. Also, note the length of P2 here. It looks to be equal to P4/P5 in length, which should put it outside the range of Pied and Atlas Flycatchers. Indeed, Shirihai & Svensson (2018) state that Atlas Flycatcher has “a slightly shorter and blunter tipped wing, with P2 invariably falling between P5 and P6”. Regards accurate ageing, it has moulted/replaced a secondary on the right wing (S6 when numbered descendant, and also visible in next image). The degree of wear and bleaching on this new secondary looks consistent with it having been grown around the time of the pre-breeding moult. There is a clear contrast in colour, apparent texture (the new feather appears glossy), and length between this secondary and the old secondaries – sufficient to show the old secondaries as being juvenile in comparison with the new adult-type feather. There is also a subtly larger amount of white at the base of the new secondary, again consistent with adult vs juvenile feather. It has also moulted its entire tail, which is a good indication for Collared (Svensson, 1992). So there can be little doubt that this bird can be aged and sexed as a 2CY female. (© Paul French)
The middle tertial has been moulted into an adult type, the broad white fringe to the basal half narrowing to the tip contrasts with the blackish centre. This is in comparison to the juvenile shortest and longest tertials that have both had the white fringes largely worn away. The broad inner half to the white fringe on the middle tertial is another feature that rules out Semi-collared Flycatcher which should show much narrower and even fringing. The limited moult of the tertials is a potentially troublesome factor, with Svensson (1992) and Shirihai and Svensson (2018) both stating that the partial winter moult involves, at least in males, all tertials and all tail feathers and apparently in many females, at least in most 1Y females too. So the fact that there are juvenile tertials remaining on this bird may be an indication of hybridisation, but may also be part of variation (and given the variation that we have seen in otherwise classic males, maybe this shouldn’t come as such a big surprise). (© Paul French)
The “saw-tooth” rear edge to the white primary spots is easily visible here, and is another supporting feature for Collared Flycatcher. (© Paul French)
The extent of the white wing patch beyond the primary coverts is easily visible here. The shape of the patch is not the oft-quoted classic “club-shape”, but nonetheless should be out of the range of any Pied Flycatcher. (© Paul French)

Unfortunately there was no call heard, but Mild (1994) states that hybrids may call like either of the parent species, or even alternate between Pied’s “pik” and Collared’s “heep” calls, but they are never anything in between. Which means that even if a Collared-type call was heard, it wouldn’t necessarily rule out a hybrid.

In summary, the brownish mantle is still within variation (Mild, 1994), and the restricted moult in the tertials may also be within variation, and these are the only real negative points that may indicate hybridisation. However, the combination of number, size and pattern of white spots at the base of the primaries, tertial pattern, tail pattern, uppertail covert colour, tail colour and moult, length of P2, rump colour and indication of a pale collar all point, in my opinion, to this being an acceptable Collared Flycatcher.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Stephen Menzie for extensive comments on the ageing and identification of this bird and on a first draft of this text. Also thanks to Jack Ashton-Booth, José Louis Capote, Andrea Corso, Marcel Gil Velasco, Tim Jones, Jason Oliver, Roni Väisänen and Noam Weiss for comments and prompt feedback on this bird.

References -

Duivendijk, N. 2011. Advanced Bird ID Handbook. New Holland, London.

Mild, K. 1994. Field identification of Pied, Collared and Semi-collared Flycatchers. Part 2: females in breeding plumage. Birding World Vol 7 p231-240

Shirihai, H. & Svensson, L. 2018. Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds. Volume II. Passerines: Flycatchers to Buntings. Helm.

Svensson, L. 1992. Identification Guide to European Passerines. BTO.

 

Steve Webb and Paul French
14 May 2019

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