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One (or indeed two) of the highlights of birding in the UK in Spring 2009 was the presence of two male Collared Flycatchers – at Portland (April) and Fife (May).  As beautiful and distinct as these singing males were, a much more difficult female Ficedula flycatcher turned up on the Isles of Scilly in mid May.  Ashley Fisher has kindly provided Surfbirds with a number of unseen images of this very interesting and enlightening bird, which has provoked a lot of discussion.

Brief account: On 12th May 2009, Chris Langston and John Higginson were on Bryher, reckoning that a decent bird was around somewhere.  Having seen 23 Spotted Flycatchers they remained hopeful and en route to cover other parts of the island, at c.1530 hrs a female Ficedula flycatcher spp. flew out in front of them.  Initially, JH called it in flight as a Pied, but on seeing the bird land he said immediately it was very pale; at this stage CL noticed a diffused neck collar on the bird. The bird then turned showing a large white patch at the base of the primaries - to which they both expressed a few profanities!

The bird was frequenting Pittosporum hedgerows that surround the small patchwork of fields at the NW base of Samson Hill (the same area as the 2003 Two-barred Greenish!).  Showing well, they soon noted a paler rump and by this stage were pretty confident they had found a female Collared Flycatcher. CL took some photos and they tried to phone the news out, but being Bryher they had to wait until the walk back to the boat to get a signal.

Ashley Fisher met up with Alan Hannington and tried to organise a jet boat to get them over to Bryher as quickly as possible, but at £76 return (!) they prudently decided it was a definite no-go.  Instead, AF went down to the quay to meet CL & JH off the boat; he knew CL had taken a number of photographs of the bird and was very keen to see these! Looking at the (admittedly small) images on the back of the camera, it looked very interesting indeed! Some images showed a very large white patch at the base of the primaries, a suggestion of a pale collar and a subtle greyish rump.  Overall, the bird looked to have a rather greyish caste, unlike the brownish hue of typical female Pied Flycatcher.  On close inspecton of the photos, the primaries appeared rather brownish and quite worn suggesting the bird was a first-summer. There was a bit of concern in that on some images, the primary patch didn’t look quite so impressive, though it still extended out towards the edge of the wing further than would be expected in typical Pied. This was clearly a VERY interesting bird and a jet boat was arranged for 0830 the following morning.

On Wednesday 13th May, AF, JH, Ren Hathway, Robin Mower, Mark Prestwood and Chris Riggard made it for the early boat. Once on Bryher, and at the right spot (c.0900), JH located the bird immediately. It was frequenting a Pittosporum hedgerow and an adjacent wire fence and still the bird looked very interesting, with good views confirming the features noted on the previous day. All agreed it was very different from a typical first-summer female Pied Flycatcher: it was notably greyer, with a diffuse collar more-or-less isolating the ear coverts; a paler greyish rump; and, especially, a prominent patch of white at the base of the primaries, clearly visible beyond the primary coverts – which, at times, looked alarmingly deep and wide!  At c.1030hrs, it was accidentally flushed, never to be seen again.

Zooming up on the images taken, it could be seen that the white at the base of the primaries extended to P4. Much discussion ensued regarding the ID of the bird, ranging from definite, to probable, to not sure – their collective inexperience of female Collared Flycatcher hindered any certainty (most of their knowledge came from  ID  papers, such as those of Krister Mild); further ‘spectres’ like the fact that they didn’t know what possible hybrids might look like, that no female has ever been accepted as a field record and the fact that the bird remained silent throughout its two day stay, led to a sort of stagnation in the ID process.

Discussion: Clearly, there needs to be lot of caution when identifying non-Spring male Collared Flycatchers in the UK.  Autumn birds are renowned for their difficulty, but surely a Spring female should be identifiable, shouldn’t it?  Those that have visited the eastern Mediterranean, at places such as Lesvos, will probably not have had too many problems in identifying adult females.  However, in the UK, what can you hope to go on, especially a first-summer/second calendar-year (2cy) female?  The following key areas, discussed in relation to the Bryher bird, are those to examine in detail.

General appearance: in the field, alongside each other, the upperparts of a typical female Collared appear paler and greyer (more washed out in colour); in comparison Pied are a richer browner colour – look at the comparison between Pied and Collared on plate 4 here http://personal.inet.fi/luonto/jyrki.normaja/siepot2.htm.  The Bryher bird was notable in the field for its paleness and greyness, with the images showing it to be brown with a grey caste on the crown and back, which is fine for 2cy female Collared.

Neck collar: the appearance of a neck collar is an oft-quoted feature of female Collared, but there needs to be some caution using it in the field.  In the hand, blowing apart the neck feathers of Collared reveals pale areas, hidden at the base, and it is these that may at times give the ‘collared’ appearance.  On the Bryher bird, a grey neck collar can be seen on this image and it has been pointed out that there seems to be some indication of pale spots on the neck side.

Rump: images show that the rump is paler than the back, and is identical in tone to the neck sides.  Pied Flycatchers can have a slightly paler rump, but often not as distinct or as grey as on the Bryher bird.

Tail pattern: the tail pattern of all three black-and-white Ficedula flycatchers is variable.  Having said that, the pattern of the tail on the Bryher bird is identical to that of Collared.  There are several images at this link http://personal.inet.fi/luonto/jyrki.normaja/siepot4.htm, which show the tail pattern differences between Collared and Pied. Note that in Collared Flycatcher the white in two outermost tail-feathers reaches or almost reaches the tip.  On the various images of the Bryher flycatcher, it is possible to see that the outer web of the outermost feather is wholly white; the next outer the white is extensive, stopping just short of the feather tip - compare images with plate 6 on the above link, the tail pattern on the is virtually identical.

Biometry of the wing: almost impossible to do in the field, a good in-hand feature of Collared is the relative length of P2 (numbered ascendantly – ie, from the outer in).  On Collared Flycatcher P2 is longer, often (57%) falling longer than p5; whilst on Pied is often shorter than P5 (74%) – there is a table at this link (but note that the figures for Collared add up to more than 100%).  http://personal.inet.fi/luonto/jyrki.normaja/siepot2.htm.  Unfortunately, even on the best images of the Byher bird, it is not possible to accurately assess the position of P2.

Primary patch: the primary patch of an adult female is very obvious, extending beyond the tips of the primary coverts, and is not matched by Pied. See these

http://www.netfugl.dk/pictures.php?id=showpicture&picture_id=27102

http://www.netfugl.dk/pictures/birds_uploaded/27154_20090425_2382.jpg

http://www.netfugl.dk/pictures.php?id=showpicture&picture_id=310

On 2cy birds, the primaries are retained from the first calendar year and the patch is not as extensive, both along the feather and onto the outer remiges; herein lies the problem.  On most female Pied Flycatchers, the white at the base of the primaries is relatively indistinct, but on some it is, but can it ever be as extensive as on Collared?  On Pied the white rarely extends beyond P6 (just 3% have it onto P5); on Collared the white extends onto P5 on 88% of birds.  The Bryher bird clearly shows white extending onto p4. The uncertainty of this feature is that hybrids between Pied and Collared can show an equal amount of white as Collared.

Call: the ‘hueep’ call of Collared Flycatcher is very different to the ‘pwit’ call of Pied, but unfortunately, the bird on Bryher did not call, had it done so the ID would have been a bit easier.

Conclusion: the question remains whether all of the pro-Collared Flycatcher features of the Bryher bird outweighs the problems created by variability amongst Pied and hybrid birds.  On the Bryher bird, the tail pattern is perfect for Collared, the primary-base patch is all that you would expect, extending beyond the primary covert tips at its most extensive and onto P4; the overall tone and hue is good, with a paler greyer rump and even the suggestion of a collar. 

Sometimes, we can be too clever and ignore the obvious.  Taking a holistic view, in my opinion, the Bryher bird shows typical plumage details of Collared Flycatcher, and should be treated as a serious candidate as the first Spring female in the UK.  Grahame Walbridge contacted Ben Sheldon, who has studied Collared, Pied and hybrids extensively, and asked the question if this looked like ‘a good albicollis’.  His answer was, ‘Yes - I would agree. Looks like a first summer female (primary contrast). The general tone of the uppers looks just right, as does the paler nape which accentuates the ear coverts. And of course the primary patch is spot on.’

Collared Flycatcher, Fife, Crail 17/5/09 © Mark Caunt from the Surfbirds Galleries