Western (and Eastern) Orphean Warbler

Hartlepool 29th May 2012 (part two)

Yes! Part two of our Red Letter Day meant the drive from Spurn to Hartlepool to join the (surprisingly) sizeable crowd around the bowling green for the Orphean Warbler. It has been a while….. Last one seen by keen birders was found by Mick Turton and identified in flight (no less!) in October 1981 on Scilly. His key fob is a glass encased photo of that bird – ask to view it if you see him ; ).

Where did all these people come from?

Well done again Chris Brown and Graeme Joynt  …. for patience and persistent ringing study. Incredible!

Like many I was intrigued to see what characters were marking the bird out as the reported ‘Western’. Fortunately it was present on our arrival. There was the expected large greyish and dark-hooded sylvia warbler (though not really the ‘big impression‘ some Eastern Orpheans can give), but first thing that really struck me were the very colourful and plain undertail coverts- particularly the colour, a kind of orange- ochre (or something like that), warm and colourful for sure, and clearly very plain looking.

1st summer male Western Orphean Warbler, Hartlepool, 29th May 2012, © Adrian Webb. Compare with this autumn Dutch Western Orphean Warbler record here.

Hard to capture the plain and colourful undertail coverts due to distance and the bird skulking habits- but you can see them more clearly in this shot taken when the bird was trapped earlier the same morning.

1st summer male Western Orphean Warbler, Hartlepool, 29th May 2012, © Martyn Sidwell. Sort of orangey-coloured plain undertail region. See comparison below:

East meets West. 1st S male Eastern (left) Eilat  March 2012,  and 1stS male Western (right), Hartlepool. Plumage basically similar, but  Eastern bird whiter undertail coverts with big dark centres, longer bill and the outermost tail feather has big blobby white tip (see below).

Having seen the bird, I recalled how tricky some old and even recent NW European birds had been to identify as Eastern or Western. So I have been chewing on the subject. Was this a certain ID? A short bill (as measured at 16.5 mm) and those plain, colourful undertail coverts strongly pointed to Western as Chris and  Graeme surmised. But was it watertight?

I noticed from Tris’ blog that Phil Woolen got some interesting shots and they included a photo of the spread tail showing the pattern on white in the outer tail feathers. Hmm. Didn’t look like the tail patterns I had of Eastern Orphean Warblers from Israel.

1st summer male Western Orphean Warbler, Hartlepool, 29th May 2012, © Phil Woolen. Ya did good Phil! For future- even at distance it was possible to get useful info on the tail pattern

So I dug out my photos, read a bit and most helpfully chatted with Lars Svensson who brought some proper illumination to the subject. Read on:

Adult male Eastern Orphean Warbler, Eilat, Israel, March 2012. A fresh, silvery, black and white male with obvious dark centres to undertail coverts. Recalling this bird’s tail feathers brought my first comparisons with the Hartlepool bird.

Spring male Orphean Warbler Tails. On the left the adult male Eastern (same as in profile photo above). n.b. fresh (adult) tail feathers. Focusing on the outermost (T6), it has extensively dark inner web apart from big white tip which covers both webs (kinda big blobby white tip).

On the right the Hartlepool bird (Martyn Sidwell). Worn juvenile feathers. Less well defined pattern than on adults, nevertheless dark on inner web extends further towards tip, so less of a white ‘spot’ and notably much more white running up the inner web of T6- same area essentially dark on the Eastern adult male.

Here’s how Lars put it. Love the large pipits analogy!

“Dear Martin

I looked briefly on some of the images of the UK bird and they fitted well with Western.

 The best character, described in my forthcoming paper, is the outertail pattern, Western having long, narrow white wedges on inner web of r6 [rectrix 6], Eastern broad and shorter. No overlap, so very useful for adults, and works to some 90% also for 1st year birds. Very simplified:  Western Orphean has Richard’s Pipit pattern, whereas Eastern Orphean has Blyth’s Pipit pattern!

 Now, the UK bird was a 1st summer male, so the tail pattern is less clear to use, still indicative enough. In particular the fact that inside the white wedge the dark portion of the inner web reached almost to tip and was undiminished dark there speaks for Western. The unmoulted wing in spring in a 1stS (only long tertials replaced?), this also in favour of Western, since 1stS Easterns habitually replace some outer primaries and odd other wing-feathers in winter.”

All the best, Lars”

So watch out for more:

Svensson, L.  A new subspecies of Western Orphean Warbler Sylvia hortensis and criteria for separating Western from Eastern Orphean Warbler S. crassirostris. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, Volume 132, Number 2.

Here’s that adult male Eastern Orphean again

showing the tail pattern from below and those all important undertail coverts. All the Eastern Orpheans I saw  Israel had dark centres to the undertail feathering.

Eastern Orphean Warbler undertail, Eilat, March 2012 (right)

1st summer female Eastern Orphean Warbler, Eilat, March 2012. Think that’s right! Very Lesser Whitethroat type head pattern but well-marked undertail coverts (latter not visible- but it had them).

1st S male Eastern Orphean Warbler. Eilat, March 2012.  A different looking bird seeming strange mix of old and new flight feathers, especially in the secondaries. Are the outer primaries new?

1st summer male Eastern Orphean Warbler, Eilat, March 2012 (left). Same bird as in the other comparison shot above. I think it’s another first summer male; well-worn remiges and rectrices. Shame I didn’t get a spread tail shot. Have to say the browner washed’ dank’ upperparts don’t really look much different to the Hartlepool bird, though the bill looks longer. AND on the right the Hartlepool bird and Chris Brown’s beard (photo Chris Bell). Important pattern on outermost tail feather is clearly visible.

Final Thoughts

I was initially very cautious as these things have proved really tricky. However the combination of undertail coverts and pattern of outer tail feathers points very strongly to Western Orphean. Measured bill length seems good too (and as soft feature it seems shorter in appearance). With records in recent years of ‘Westerns’ in the Netherlands in autumn and Helgoland in spring, there is clear ‘previous’. The outer tail feature has been mentioned before in regard to this Dutch record as first noted noted by  Nils ‘Advanced Bird ID’ bible, but has been much clarified with new stuff by Lars S.


So thanks indeed to Lars Svensson for his most helpful input, to Kieren Allinson (what a day!) and to Chris Brown, Chris Bell, Martyn Sidwell, Richard Millington, Pim Wolf and a special mention to the leaders and staff at the International Ringing Station in Eilat.

International Birdwatching and Research Centre at Eilat. The leaders and ringing team were great bunch and I learnt loads. Thanks very much indeed to all. Pictured here Roni V., Christian B., Fabian M. and Yothan L … Lovely pink t-shirts boys!

Mystery ID

Also taken in Eilat in late March 2012…

Whats do you think this one is?

3 thoughts on “Western (and Eastern) Orphean Warbler

  1. Andrea Corso

    Hi Martin

    only to report that the undertail coverts pattern is far too stressed in most literature….

    Indeed, I handled may Eastern OW in Cyprus and found several with fully white clean unpatterned UTC with almost no dark markings (or concealed lateral feathers) or indeed NO dark markings
    Those markings, this kind of pattern, is visible in many Sardinian, Garden, Subalpine etc …. and is very Sylvia peculiar…in Eastern OW is typical and most recurrangt but is not unique neither always there


    Andrea Corso

    1. Martin Garner

      Thanks Andrea

      had meant to say my sample size was obviously pretty small blah blah blah more anecdotal than anything. You in the zone as ever!
      Thanks for commenting


  2. Laurie Allan

    Interesting stuff, as usual, Martin – i have found myself using the ‘Nils’ back in Blighty even for common stuff. It’s making me look a lot closer at things, that and your blog of course!


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