Shades of grey

“I believe very strongly that when it comes to desire, when it comes to attraction, that things are never black and white, things are very much shades of grey.”

– Brian Molko

While most were complaining about the bad weather forecasted for the second half of the Easter holidays, birders were looking forward to it. A strong and prolonged eastern galore was going to hit the Catalan coast from Friday to Monday, potentially bringing in some eastern goodies. When this happens, many of us immediately think of finding a Collared Flycatcher, probably one of the most appealing birds in Europe and still a true eastern jewel in the Iberian Peninsula. What we probably couldn’t expect was the magnitude of the event. Over 100 Collared Flycatchers were found during those 4 days in Catalonia, an unprecedented influx and a record that might be hard to beat in the future. The average is less than 3 accepted records per year, what guarantees its inclusion in the statewide rarities list and gives an idea of how exceptional this influx has been.

Pretty much everybody who went out birding to suitable areas (this being just some trees within 30km from the coast) found one and some of the lucky birders who happened to be at the north coast – the epicentre of the earthquake – found each up to 5 in a single weekend. As usual with spring Ficedula flycatchers’ fallouts, some id discussions have raised, especially involving females and putative hybrids. Here’s my attempt to compile and comment some of the trickiest birds reported these days. Comments are more than welcome!

Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis. 2cy female. Vila-seca, Tarragona, April 24th. Xavier Riera & Eugeni Capella

This bird is clearly a female based on the pattern of the moulted tertials and greater coverts, but its age isn’t straightforward. Adult Pied Flycatchers are usually worner than adult Collared in spring, so there’s some virtual overlap in the levels of primary wear between adult Pied and 2cy Collared. It’s one of the few cases in which identification must come together with ageing, if not before. Looking at the reliable features (those not depending on position or light), we can see the white in the primary bases extending into at least P3, a palish grey rump contrasting with a darker back and some mottled side uppertail coverts. The extension of the pre-nuptial moult among body feathers is hard to assess, but these feathers in the uppertail area give the impression of having been replaced. Then the subjective features come into play: the back is arguably brown but still cold-toned, primary projection is fairly long, the eye-ring is apparently grey and there’s a hint of a pale collar. The only thing I see against it being a 2cy Collared is perhaps the width of the white primary patch, but in my opinion the size appearance is highly dependent on the position, as happens with the next bird, and in this case the from-behind pictures might obscure its actual width.

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Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis. 2cy female. Vila-seca, Tarragona, April 24th. Xavier Riera & Eugeni Capella. Note the extensive white primary patch and cold-toned upperparts.
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Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis. 2cy female. Vila-seca, Tarragona, April 24th. Xavier Riera. The pale rump is visible here, together with the mottled uppertail coverts.

Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis. 2cy? female. Llobregat Delta, Barcelona, April 23rd. Marcel Gil & Juan Bécares.

This bird isn’t particularly challenging, but the views we got allowed us to compare the size appearance of the primary patch in different positions. Whereas it looks like a thin line when seen from behind, it becomes nice and wide with side views, giving an idea of how easy to overlook females are. The rump is again quite striking, concolorous with the nape and both contrasting with the darker but cold-toned upperparts. In this case, it’s possible to appreciate a stouter bill too. In the other hand, the eye-ring shows some orangey coloration that doesn’t quite fit with either species. Given there are traces of the same tone all around the face and that several birds were feeding on flowers (either on pollen or on parasites), I think they might be just dirty feathers.

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Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis. 2cy? female. Llobregat Delta, Barcelona, April 23rd. Juan Bécares. The primary patch looks like a thin band when seen from behind. Rest of the visible features do support its identification as a female Collared.
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Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis. 2cy? female. Llobregat Delta, Barcelona, April 23rd. Guillermo Rodríguez. Same bird as above. Note how the primary patch size appearance changes depending on the position of the bird, being most obviously Collared here.

Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis. 2cy female. Les Masies de Voltregà, Osona, April 22nd, Martí Franch.

A nice photo that perfectly shows what in my opinion is the Collared Flycatcher jizz. The eye-ring is particularly striking, giving it a nice expression somewhat reminiscent of Red-breasted or Dark-sided Flycatchers. The pale nape gets more visible under this light conditions and contrasts notably with the darkish cold-toned upperparts. Underparts are pure white and the primary patch is typically boomerang-shaped, reaching at least P3.

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Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis. 2cy female. Les Masies de Voltregà, Osona, April 22nd, Martí Franch. Perfect shot to depict the classical jizz of the species: well-defined eye-ring and pale nape contrasting with cold-toned upperparts.

Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis. 2cy female. Montjoi, Cap de Creus, April 21st, Martí Franch.

Yet another classical female. This time, the upperparts look strikingly pale, approaching the pure white underparts. We then can see the typical set of features: stout bill, extensive primary patch, very pale eye-ring and long primary projection. Beautiful!

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Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis. 2cy female. Montjoi, Cap de Creus, April 21st, Martí Franch. A very pale (and beautiful) individual. Bill structure is particularly noticeable in this photo.

Flycatcher sp. Ficedula sp. Female. Pals, Girona, April 22nd. Juan Bécares

This is a very tricky bird in my opinion. It was photographed under poor light conditions and some details are very hard to assess. First of all, the width and extension of the primary patch: it’s still a thin line even with side views and it looks like it reaches P4, but it could well be just P5. Upperparts colouration is hard to judge, but it feels right for Collared. The well-contrasted pale rump is also quite striking. Underparts look quite pure white too, without any traces of brown. The bill looks stout, but the brown on the throat doesn’t seem to fit, being too warm in my opinion. All in all, there are too many mismatching features to ensure an id, so it’s probably better to leave this one unidentified.

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Flycatcher sp. Ficedula sp. Female. Pals, Girona, April 22nd. Juan Bécares. Pale rump visible in this shot. Challenging light conditions make the id of this individual almost impossible.
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Flycatcher sp. Ficedula sp. Female. Pals, Girona, April 22nd. Juan Bécares. The primary patch could be extensive enough for it being a Collared, but probably not to ensure its id out of the safe breeding grounds.
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Flycatcher sp. Ficedula sp. Female. Pals, Girona, April 22nd. Juan Bécares. The overall colouration seems to support Collared here, but the throat side patches are a bit too warm.

Grey morph male Pied Flycatcher

Some days ago, a very interesting debate raised on Facebook too. Apparently, there have been abnormal large numbers of Collared Flycatcher going through Israel too and after a series of nice in-hand photos of some varied Ficedula flycatchers, Yosef Kiat – one of the keenest ringers in the entire WP – came up with an interesting insight regarding grey morph male Pied and their occurrence patterns. According to Shirihai & Svensson 2018, they are commoner across the Eastern Mediterranean flyway, a statement most western ringers would subscribe. We see this morph on a regular basis here in the Iberian Peninsula, but it’s usually very scarce. The normal proportions are hard to work out looking back now, but it sure hardly never reaches 10% of the total males we see (in fact it’s probably much less than that). According to Price 2008 (and the references included there), this grey morph is commoner in areas of overlap with Collared, where several male Pied mimic females to avoid the competition with their more powerful relative species. I’ve been paying attention to this during Easter bonanza and interestingly the proportion of grey males seemed to be much higher than usual, reaching almost 50% of the total. Whatever has pushed the Collared Flycatchers to our shores has also brought their Pied neighbours. The colour of the upperparts in these birds can approach that of female Collared and therefore sexing must come before any attempt to identify any dull Ficedula.

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Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca. Grey morph 2cy male, Llobregat Delta, April 23rd. The moulted tertials and GCs clinches the sex of this bird, but it’s otherwise very similar to a female.
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Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca. Grey morph 2cy male, Llobregat Delta, April 23rd. Same bird as above. The mix of moulted (grey) and unmoulted (brown) feathers on the upperparts is visible here, together with the male patterned tertials and inner greater coverts.

It’s worth mentioning here, as Stephen pointed out, that not all dull males are of the grey morph. The extension of the pre-nuptial moult in Pied Flycatcher is highly variable and can produce everything from pure black and white to almost entirely brown individuals, as well as some in-between funny patchy birds.

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Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca. 2cy male, Llobregat Delta, April 23rd. Juan Bécares. A bird with a bloody restricted pre-nuptial moult, keeping an almost complete winter appearance. Note the moulted tertials and GCs though.

Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis? 2cy male?. Aiguamolls de l’Empordà. April 25th. Ramón Aguilar.

Not only females or female-like birds are interesting. Two question marks in the title might seem a bit exaggerated at a glance, but this apparently striking male shows an equally striking small primary patch and a closer examination of the nape reveals some black feathers. In my opinion, there are good chances of this bird coming from hybrid areas, where everything seems to be possible.

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Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis? 2cy male?. Aiguamolls de l’Empordà. April 25th. Ramón Aguilar. Despite the striking white collar, the primary patch is very small, suggesting some Pied Flycatcher influence.
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Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis? 2cy male?. Aiguamolls de l’Empordà. April 25th. Ramón Aguilar. Same individual as above. A closer examination of the nape reveals some blackish feathers, not conclusive but contributing to the not-so-pure impression.

Presumed hybrid Collared x Pied Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis x hypoleuca. 2cy male. Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, April 23rd. Albert Burgas

The nape is certainly blackish, but interestingly it can go surprisingly unnoticed with brief side views. The rump isn’t white but grey, reminiscent of Semicollared Flycatcher. The extension of the primary patch is closer to Pied, but its shape better fits Collared in my opinion. The neck sides and even the front patch are mottled and there’s at least one outer tail feather with white in the outer web. Although extreme 2cy Collareds can show this set of features, I get the feeling this kind of birds doesn’t occur in Collared’s core range but in areas of overlap with Pied, indicating a certain degree of intergradation.

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Presumed hybrid Collared x Pied Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis x hypoleuca. 2cy male. Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, April 23rd. Albert Burgas. Small primary patch, grey rump and mottled front patch are all visible here, suggesting some obvious Pied influence. Extreme 2cy Collared can show a similar appearance and hence probably better left just as presumed hybrid.
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Presumed hybrid Collared x Pied Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis x hypoleuca. 2cy male. Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, April 23rd. Albert Burgas. Same bird as above. The pretty solid dark nape and dirty collar sides is well-seen here.
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Presumed hybrid Collared x Pied Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis x hypoleuca. 2cy male. Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, April 23rd. Albert Burgas. Same as above, with better light conditions.

Acknowledgements

I want to thank all the observers and photographers who have kindly provided the photos for this post, together with some interesting comments on some of the birds’ id: Ramón Aguilar, Àlex Ollé, Martí Franch, Juan Bécares, Guillermo Rodríguez, Albert Burgas, Marc Illa, Stephen Menzie, Aron Edman, Björn Malmhagen, Xavier Riera and Eugeni Capella.

This Collared Flycatcher influx has made the Catalan birders collaborate with each other, all sharing their records, photos and doubts. During all these days, there was a sense of teamwork that it’s worth keeping now: together we see more and together we learn quicker.

References

Price, T. (2008). Speciation in birds. Roberts and Co.

Shirihai, H., & Svensson, L. (2018). Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds, Volume 1: Passerines: Larks to Warblers. Bloomsbury Publishing.

2 Comments

  1. Marcel,
    Could I send you some photos of a potential female collared flycatcher for your consideration please? I would really appreciate your views.
    Thanks
    Tom

    Like

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