The Portland Flycatcher

Rare or Common or What?

Martin Garner 

A flycatcher seen at Portland Castle, Dorset  on 10th May  I found most intriguing but it seems to have drawn insufficient attention!  I don’t think it’s ‘just’ a Pied Flycatcher, others have also wrestled with it, as ever make up your own mind.  Here are some photos of the bird and some comment.

With grateful thanks to Martin Cade, Brett Spencer and Graham Walbridge for open and very helpful discussion. To Magnus Hellström, Ben Sheldon and Brian Small for excellent input and to Ken Tucker and Debbie Saunders for photos.

flycatcher sp. Debby Saunders

flycatcher sp., Portland Castle, 10th May 2014. Debby Saunders. In this more distant shot the white in wing merges a little slightly exaggerating its appearance. No slur on Debby who posts amazing pics. This shot woke folk up to what seemed a very interesting individual!

Age and Sex

If possible first stage is to age and sex the bird as certain characters are related/relevant to these specifics.  I haven’t found it easy to age (first summer males are the easiest).  I couldn’t immediately see any obvious moult contrast and wear looks even so overall feel for me is probably an adult, though not 100% sure. If a first winter then the white primary patch is huge and would surely indicate that it’s obviously not a Pied Flycatcher and probably a Collared etc.

Magnus Hellström adds more on visible moult contrast:

“The bird does show several moult contrasts, in the greater coverts (approx three outermost are not moulted), in the median coverts (hard to see) and most likely also in the secondaries (the innermost S6, just visible under the longest tertial, seems moulted, which is not uncommon). But most of these contrasts probably comes from the partial pre-breeding moult, which both age classes have. So (just as in the Wagtails I wrote about) the presence of the contrast does not help ageing. You have to make an assessment of the wear in the feathers that was not included in the winter moult – are they moderately or heavily worn!? This is sometimes tough, even with the bird in your hand.”

 

 

flycatcher sp. Brett Spencer

flycatcher sp. Brett Spencer

flycatcher sp. Brett Spencer.

flycatcher sp. Brett Spencer.

 

The sex if the bird is so far a little disputatious.  Some originally thought it was what’s called a ‘brown male’ which occur more commonly in central and Western Europe.  They are greyish-brown above and not black like normal males.  They normally show a white forehead spot(s) black rump/upper tale coverts and wholly white looking inner greater coverts. Some have blacker wings and tail. This bird on several photos has greyish rump and upper tail coverts, same colour as rest of upperparts.  No white ‘male’ patch on forehead (typical insignificant female buffy patch) and white fringed (not wholly white) inner greater coverts. The wings and tail are not black and at least 1-2 median coverts have white tips. Some ‘brown males’ can have such a pattern in the greater coverts and similar forehead pattern. However they are described as ‘very rare’. No black in rump, uppertail coverts, wings or tail, indicate it’s most likely a female.

Most female like male ‘brown’ Pied Flycatcher are also described as having small white primary patches and normal amount of white on the tertials.

RECAP on why it’s most likely a female:

  • brown rump, wings and tail on apparent adult
  • white primary patch atypically large for ‘brown’ male
  • lacks white forehead spot found on most males
  • lacks wholly white looking inner greater coverts typical of males
  • white tipped median coverts typical of some females

 

 

flycatcher sp. Brett Spencer

flycatcher sp. Brett Spencer

flycatcher sp. Brett Spencer

flycatcher sp. Brett Spencer

 

What species?

Having attempted to age and sex it I think it’s a female and probably an adult.  There are several quite well known features to focus in on.  These are chiefly the pattern of white in the primary patch and the amount of white in the tail.  On this bird the white primary patch is clearly longer than the primary coverts and appears to reach to P4 (just about on perched shots and in flight shot).  The tail pattern appears to show white extending right to the tip of the tail (T6 and T5 overlapping) and a white line on the outer web with T4.  The tail pattern as interpreted with the photos fits Collared better than Pied (though it’s a pretty soft feature with much overlap). Both of those features are good for Collared and in combination seem to be at least are rare/ very rare in Pied. Furthermore if it is a female the amount (and pattern) of white in the tertials is probably too much for female Pied but OK for Collared.

Nape and rump feathers.  Some have commented on seeing a paler collar or paler nape area.  I’m not confident about this enough to comment.

flycatcher sp. showing some of pattern of white in outer tail. Martin Cade

flycatcher sp. showing some of pattern of white in outer tail. Martin Cade

RECAP: on identification features

  • apparent white in primary patch better for collared
  • apparent white in tail better for collared
  • white in tertials better for collared

So why not a Collared? I agree and defer with those with much more expertise in this area that “it doesn’t feel Collared-like to me in general plumage tone” (Ben Sheldon) or “In the best of worlds, I would have wished for a (slightly) better primary patch combined with a paler and colder grey ground colour above” (Magnus Hellström). Martin Cade also heard a typical Pied Flycatcher call coming from the vicinity of the bird, if not seeing and hearing it call simultaneously. FYI hybrids can give calls of one parent species or the other or both call types from same bird.

 

flycatcher sp. Ken Tucker

flycatcher sp. Ken Tucker

flycatcher sp. Ken Tucker

flycatcher sp. Ken Tucker

Full set of Characters

Tricky Flycatchers are identified using the fullest set of characters.  I think it’s an adult female showing some characters of Collared Flycatcher.  That might mean that it is one. Maybe it’s a hybrid. The issue of the southern Atlas and Iberian Flycatcher is real and exposes our ignorance too! You could call it just a Pied but for me the full set of characters doesn’t allow you to do that. 🙂 . That would be shoehorning it for the sake of not leaving it up in the air. However these are the ones we learn most from!  As ever have a look for yourself and contribute if you know stuff that will help.

flycatcher sp. Ken Tucker

flycatcher sp. Ken Tucker

Comments from others

Be great to hear if you disagree and why, giving examples where these set of features has been found in Pied.

Have a look at this bird which looks VERY similar and ID was left unresolved (thanks to Brett S.)

2 thoughts on “The Portland Flycatcher

  1. Pingback: 10th May 2014: Flyfall | Badly exposed birds

Leave a Reply