Wednesday 13 May 2020

Collared Flycatcher - Orcombe Point 2016

It's been a bit of a long and torturous journey but I found out this afternoon that the BBRC has accepted this Collared Flycatcher. It was discovered late in the afternoon on April 20th 2016, on Orcombe Point, in a small triangular-shaped copse that I rarely check, following fierce, gale-force easterly winds. It's the first record for Devon and the earliest in the UK by eight days. Its early arrival and  my lack of experience with the species (and its confusion species - chiefly Atlas Flycatcher) prevented me from taking it any further.
Things took a bit of a twist last year when an influx of over 150 Collareds (including several females) occurred in northern Spain in mid April (an occurrence that's been repeated again this year) and a female turned up at Spurn, Yorkshire, in May (which has also recently been accepted), which was arguably not quite as good a candidate as the Orcombe bird.
In May 2019 I contacted Paul French, chairman of the BBRC and author of the ' rarebirdalert' article on the Spurn bird, with the photos. His reaction was "it looks like a classic Collared Flycatcher" but he cautioned with the need to rule out Atlas Flycatcher, especially as its upper-tail coverts were distinctly blackish (though perfectly within range of variation of Collared Fly). He encouraged me to submit it regardless, though suggested I waited until new research on Atlas and Iberian Flycatchers was published.
Being incredibly impatient I set about contacting birders with experience of both Atlas Pied Flycatcher and Iberian Pied Flycatcher. Both Andrea Corso and José Luis Copete (both of whom have researched and published literature on  Atlas Pied)  were contacted, and were fantastically helpful (and both pro-Collared Flycatcher). I also contacted Roger Riddington and Stephen Menzie of the BBRC, who were both extremely helpful and encouraging.
I put together a pretty large and comprehensive BBRC submission, including all the e-mail feedback from Andrea and José, and all  my photos, and crossed my fingers! 
If I'd known more about Collared Flycatcher back then I'd have broadcast the news on finding it. Unfortunately I was, and still am, woefully inexperienced in the 'ficedula' department so I stuck the photos on the blog entitled 'Interesting Flycatcher' (mindful of the difficulty in identifying female Collared Fly) and left it at that. On seeing the photos Mark Bailey, Terry Smith and Brian Heasman rushed over to see it, but Brian had to leave (his daughter's car had caught fire!) before Terry and Mark relocated it, by now late in the evening. It was gone the next day.
Collared Flycatcher seems to be getting more and more regular in the UK. Indeed it's no longer considered the 'mega' it once was. A male was seen on the Faroe Islands on 25/4 this year and, as I mentioned earlier, there was another big mid-April influx in to Spain this year. It looks like its status as a vagrant is changing pretty fast, presumably as a result of  changing climate, so its got to be worth checking all future female 'Pied' Flys very carefully.

I sent this to the BBRC only recently and asked it to be included with the existing file. Adjusting the contrast in black and white in 'Picasa' reveals an obvious collar and pattern that perfectly mirrors that of a male Collared Flycatcher. A happy accident on my part but supportive of Collared Flycatcher.

Chief identification point is the large white patch at the base of the primaries. On Pied Fly it's often absent or rarely extends beyond p6, whereas on this bird it clearly reaches p4 and there's even an apparent small spot on p3. To put it simply, the white extends close to the wing edge and well beyond the primary coverts. This rules out Pied but not Atlas, although the white patch on this bird is way more extensive than on the majority of Atlas. Additionally this is a very grey-looking bird, lacking the browner tones of Pied. Atlas can look grey but perhaps not as pale as this bird, and of course Atlas doesn't show a collar. This bird also shows a whitish-grey rump, white in tail feather t4 (as well as extensive white in t6 and t5) and brilliant white underparts (often more sullied in Pied).
It's perhaps worth pointing out that Atlas Pied Fly (which hasn't yet been recorded in the UK) doesn't typically reach its breeding grounds in north Africa until late April/early May, so is arguably more unlikely to turn up in the UK in the third or fourth week of April than Collared, which does actually breed as far north as southern Sweden. Factor in the strong easterlies too.
From what I've been able to ascertain, female Iberian Pied Fly shows the same amount/extent of white at the base of the primaries as Pied, and it's interesting that Spanish birders were confidently identifying Collared in the recent influxes, suggesting they differ markedly from the local population.
I don't think there's anything on this bird to suggest hybrid parentage, though Pied and Collared are known to hybidise, but as Stephen Menzie said, it would be impossible to fully rule out on any British record.
Then there's the grey form of male Pied Fly to consider, but that shows a different pattern of white in the greater coverts and tertials, and usually exhibits some tell-tale black somewhere in the upperparts. It's unlikely that the primary patch would be so large either.
Finally Semi-collared has to be considered but that shows evenly narrow-edged tertials and of course a second (median covert) wing-bar, along with a different pattern of white at the base of the primaries.

Whitish-grey rump contrasts markedly with darker mantle.

Club-shaped white patch at base of primaries almost reaches wing edge and extends beyond primary coverts. Note also the cold-toned upperparts and pale grey neck sides.


  1. Sensational find and submission. These little headlands might disappoint far more than they deliver, but if there's ever proof it's worth it it's this.

    Best wishes


    1. Thank you so much for your comment Steve. Yes the excitement of birding for me is looking for stuff in places that other people aren't looking, and the hours of not seeing stuff made worthwhile by unexpected birds. All the best. Matt

  2. I’m Brian’s grandson and I remember that day.
    One frustrated grandad having to come to our rescue 😂

    1. Hi! I've never met you but whenever I see Brian he always mentions you - I know all about your job on Exmouth's land train! Great to hear from you! I wish your grandad had seen it but these things happen. Birding's a cruel game. He has his priorities right. All the best. Matt

  3. Well done Matt your gut feeling at the time pointed to Collared Fly and it has now been excepted. All the times you’ve been to Orcombe and blanked and have never given up has been rewarded. Well done you and congratulations. Kind regards Derek C

    1. Thanks Derek - look forward to birding with you again soon. Let me know when you're over this way - we can socially distance. All the best. Matt

  4. Replies
    1. Thank you Spencer -still trying to get my head round its acceptance. Hope you're enjoying your new home. Hopefully see you in Exmouth sometime soon. All the best. Matt

  5. What a great story, Matt! Inspirational!!

    And extremely useful write-up too. Nice one. 😊 👍🏻

  6. Thank you Gav - caused me a lot of headaches in a way, as all the way through I assumed its early arrival and the existence of Atlas Fly would prevent its acceptance, so I was preparing myself for the 'not proven' which is never nice! Glad the write-up is useful. All the best. Matt

  7. Really well Done Matt, and a fantastic post telling the whole story plus a new bird for Devon. I really didn't think at the time you had got enough on the bird to get it through BBRC but persistence pays off! All credit to you for contacting so many people with in depth knowledge of the species and getting the feedback to back up the submission.
    There are few other birders in Devon that will have that immediate knowledge to call on in the field and then get stuck in to the bird in question to get as much detail as possible (with the camera you had - you did an amazing job at capturing the essential features) and put at least some sort of news out at the time as you did.

  8. Hi Mike - thank you. I wish I was that sharp. My recollection of that evening isn't great but I think I only twigged its potential on looking at the photos on the back of the camera. It didn't stay still for long so I fired off a load of shots assuming I was watching a Pied Fly. When I saw the amount of white in the wing my stomach flipped and I shot home to check the books. I remember looking at the illustration in the Collins guide and thinking sh*t! I also remember showing Lu the photo and asking her to match the two (she immediately pointed to the Collared as if it was the easiest thing in the world) so I wouldn't say I had the immediate knowledge! Then came the whole 'it just can't possibly be one' bit. You were clear at the time that Atlas and Iberian had to be ruled out, and none of the photos showed what you'd call an obvious collared effect. I think had it been in May we'd have looked at it a bit differently but April 20th seemed ludicrous. For me, personally, the black and white photo where I adjusted the contrast was the first time I felt remotely confident it wasn't Atlas or anything else, but that was only quite recently. Sorry to ramble on. Thanks again for your kind words. All the best. Matt

  9. I still think most wouldn't even had thought to go any further than Pied!

  10. Hi Matt - A bit late commenting on this, but I just wanted to say that this is thoroughly deserved and was all down to you pursuing that niggling feeling you had! I wish I had been more help at the time!