The Fair Isle Collared Flycatcher

by Roger Riddington

Sunday 9th June 2013 was day 2 of the FIBOT AGM weekend, and in the morning I was helping out with the daily census, since warden David Parnaby had gallantly forgone census duties to do a Puffin walk for punters on a visiting cruise ship. I was in the southwest sector of the isle, and the other Obs staffers were covering southeast (Will Miles) and north (Richard Cope). It was a gloriously sunny day with a light easterly breeze; there was not much evidence of new arrivals in southwest but there is always hope on Fair Isle.

Just before 12.00 the Obs transit hove into view with David at the wheel and Will already on board. Richard had an interesting flycatcher at Lower Station (the communications tower near the top of Ward Hill), a female ficedula that was distinctly grey and had a big white primary patch. The implications were clear and it seemed like a good excuse for a detour.

Before we even saw the bird, Richard showed us his best image on the back of his camera. It was an arresting photo to say the least – a distinctly cold, grey-looking bird, with an obvious pale band across the rump, a diffuse but distinctly paler/greyer collar and – most significantly – a great big wedge of white at the base of the primaries, in the classic ‘club’ shape – i.e. wider towards the primary tips. The bird duly appeared and, after 15 minutes or so, everyone was agreed: the primary patch alone was totally different from anything we’d ever seen in a female Pied.

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First views for Richard – bit distant but looks distinctly interesting…

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and closer… oooeerrrr!! That’s a primary patch and a half…

From behind - an obvious whitish band across the rump, and a diffuse grey collar...

From behind – an obvious whitish band across the rump, and a diffuse grey collar…

Richard had two pictures where he’d captured the upperwing in flight, which showed the wingbar white and broad almost to the edge of the wing. It was these pictures perhaps more than anything that made me start to believe it must surely be a Collared. I focussed on looking at the wingbar in flight through bins and it was incredibly obvious.

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There was a general consensus about what we had in front of us but none of us, least of all me, could remember whether there were any accepted records of female Collared that had not been trapped. [In fact, at the time of writing, there are four accepted British records of female/imm. Collared Flycatchers - Skerries May 76, Fair Isle October 86, North Ron May 99 and Bryher May 09 -  and the three in spring were not trapped.] Since the weather was remarkably fine, a decision to try and trap it was made. Will set off to get nets, while the rest of us stayed to observe and photograph.

An incredibly slick trapping operation followed, everyone with a job, mine being to ferry people up and down the hill road in the transit, so that people had a chance to see it in the field. As it was, it was caught quickly. It was taken back to the obs, where Dave Okill and Deryk Shaw joined us in the ringing room – a team effort of poring over the literature meant we didn’t miss anything critical. It was processed, shown to the assembled crowd, photographed, and on its way back to the trapping site for release in little more than half an hour – I was impressed.

The open wing. What a wingbar! A broad band of white on P4 with a clear spot on P3. Pied typically shows white to P6 to P7, 'sometimes P5, extremely rarely a white spot concealed at the base of P4' (Svensson). Note also the two ages of greater coverts - the replaced inner ones are presumably prebreeding, but are the older ones adult post- breeding or juvenile? Any ringers out there with lots of experience? Would be good to have any opinions.

The open wing. What a wingbar! A broad band of white on P4 with a clear spot on P3. Pied typically shows white to P6 to P7, ‘sometimes P5, extremely rarely a white spot concealed at the base of P4′ (Svensson). Note also the two ages of greater coverts – the replaced inner ones are presumably prebreeding, but are the older ones adult post- breeding or juvenile? Any ringers out there with lots of experience? Would be good to have any opinions.

The nape feathers - bit of a clincher. That white stripe across the middle helpfully eliminates both Pied and Semi-collared and could have been modelled on the drawing on p226 of the 'green Svensson'

The nape feathers – bit of a clincher. That white stripe across the middle helpfully eliminates both Pied and Semi-collared and could have been modelled on the drawing on p226 of the ‘green Svensson’

This is a great pic, with Collared on the left and a female Pied spliced in beside it - the latter was caught later the same afternoon. Check out the differences in primary patch,  tertial pattern (especially the thin white tips on Collared), the colder upperparts and great long wings of the Collared and that ghostly pale neck boa...

This is a great pic, with Collared on the left and a female Pied spliced in beside it – the latter was caught later the same afternoon. Check out the differences in primary patch, tertial pattern (especially the thin white tips on Collared), the colder upperparts and great long wings of the Collared, and that ghostly pale neck boa…

Back at the mast it quickly re-settled in the area, and showed well later that afternoon (after the AGM).

Showing well in the afternoon sunshine...

Showing well in the afternoon sunshine…

All in all, a great team effort (I’ve mentioned the word ‘team’ three times now, which qualifies me for a bonus ‘boom’ point from Captain Garner), though of course specially to Richard for finding it and getting everyone there. And it was the icing on the cake of a brilliant three days – the first Temminck’s for the isle since 1987, male western Subalpine Warbler present through in the Obs garden, a nice scatter of other migrants such as Red-backed Shrike and Wood Warbler, a lingering pod of 150 White-sided Dolphins and stupendous views of Orcas, when 15 animals circumnavigated the isle on the evening of the 8th. See some of the pics at the FIBO warden’s blog. If I’d been there a day earlier I’d have seen a River Warbler as well. Fair Isle, spring or autumn, it’s not always easy to decide…

[Pic credits of the images: Pics 1, 2 & 4 by Richard C, 3 & 8 by RR, 5 & 7 by Will M, no. 6 by David P]

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