OCTOBER 2010'S MYSTERY BIRD ANSWERS
Was it something I said? Just when I pessimistically thought this monthly mystery bird photograph competition, in fact perhaps the very last remaining competition of it's kind in the world (?) might be coming to an end, this month left me genuinely surprised and overwhelmed with appreciation. A magnificent 40 entrants gave it a go this month, in what was yet another grueller with what appears to be two bush dwelling little brown jobs! There were a few new entrants again this month too, proving once again that it's never too late to enter but it was clearly the most well supported month of the year so far and for that I am truly grateful.
Birders assessing the identity of birds from photographs particularly on the Internet and mainly via forums, is fast becoming something of an epidemic. It seems everyone wants to have their say about what the latest controversial identification might be, regardless of whether they actually got to see the bird in question, they've seen the species before or indeed actually seen much of anything before! The point is though, that assessing birds from photos is hugely fraught with potential danger. Photos lie, as do computer monitors and this competition often proves just how misleading it can all be. In the cold light of day I have no doubt all entrants to this competition would nail the identification of every species ever utilised on here but captured as a mere split-second in time, in an awkward position or in that certain lighting, things look all the more different don't they. But anyway, I digress somewhat (not to mention ramble!) and now on to the answers. What really were the identities of that despicable due?
Mystery Bird 19
Once again this month, many entrants provided a detailed account into their choices and decisions which provided a delightful little insight into the inner workings of their grey matter. In actual fact though, the success rate for this mystery bird was high at 83% but there were three incorrect species entered and we'll start with the most popular one. Pied Flycatcher received five incorrect entries and most of those entrants mentioned a huge white wing patch as one of their deciding features. In fact, our mystery bird looks rather non-descript but does display obvious pale edges to the greater coverts (which display a more prominent wing-bar effect) and tertials in particular with less obvious pale edges to the secondaries and lesser coverts. The 'white patch' mentioned by those entrants is actually part of the flank feathering as the bird is having a good old scratch. It's left leg, moving quicker than the speed of sound, is scratching the back of it's head, which can just be made out, especially when you consider the angle of the undertail coverts which are more clearly visible as the bird twists to reach it's leg over the left wing. Pied Flycatcher however (in female or first calendar year) differs slightly from the greater covert pattern of our mystery bird. They lack the pale edged look and instead are only tipped pale/white with the rest of the feather uniformly dark. They also have much more visible broad white on the tertial edges too. Brown Flycatcher came next with a single vote and why not, it's a fair candidate and has more recently caused highly publicised mis-identification problems in the UK! First winter Brown Flycatcher has a very similar looking wing to our mystery bird but two features disqualify it any further as they display more extensively uniform brownish flanks and breast plus they have a distinctive, almost swollen profile to the bill when viewed from above or below. The bill profile of our mystery bird is patently concave sided and thus differs from the more convex sides of Brown Flycatcher. Collared Flycatcher too managed a single vote, though whether, given more recent serious identification headaches in the UK concerning the species and it's autumnal separation from Pied Flycatcher, I'd be daft enough to make that rod for my own back I doubt very much! Regardless though, any Collared Flycatcher should show a very noticeable amount of white at the base of the primaries and as this area, which we can clearly see on our mystery bird, is completely devoid of any white, we can be sure it is not that species. This all, in one way or another, leaves us with out correct answer. The bill shape does indeed lend itself to a flycatcher, a distinctly uniform brown one although some slightly dark lateral streaks on the forehead and fore-crown with some just about visible darker streaks on the breast help. Combined with it's wing pattern only one species fits our mystery bird, one which 33 entrants also worked out as being a Spotted Flycatcher.
First-winter Spotted Flycatcher, Bryan Hey Reservoir, Horwich, August 2010 (Ian McKerchar)
Mystery Bird 20
I knew this mystery bird was going to be difficult, for it was actually sent to me as a mystery bird in the first place! I didn't realise however just how difficult it was going to be and just how misleading entrants were going to find it. It actually has very few features indeed (a feature in itself?) though all but three entrants managed by hook or crook, to decide rightly it was at least some kind of warbler. Perhaps it was hiding it's head to conceal a distinctive feature? Perhaps that was just a red herring? Perhaps I really am evil? Eight species were offered as answers, something of a surprising amount, though could it be that this species' featureless appearance might cause it be something of a chameleon amongst the bird world? Hmmm. It does appear to be primarily grey in it's appearance, pretty much all over in fact! This quickly discounts one of our incorrect answers, that of Nightingale, a species which even in it's eastern and greyer hafizi guise, would show much more prominent reddish colouration to the tail and rump at the very least. We also loose another species at this juncture too, that of Whitethroat, a species which displays conspicuous bright reddish edges to the wing feathers in all sexes and ages. Our mystery bird does have a rather long and slim look, though that is no doubt amplified it's apparent stretch to get to whatever's under that leaf. This, and the fairly accurate assessment of it's size according to the vegetation around it would seem to exclude another incorrect answer, as Black-throated Thrush is a much larger and considerably bulkier bird. And now onto the remaining warblers, where the fun really starts! Olivaceous Warbler, a particularly grey and nondescript bird, managed a single entry but can be quickly eliminated structurally as it has a rather short primary projection, perhaps half the length of the tertials at best (and so 50%). Our mystery bird, as acknowledged (and then ignored ☺) by several entrants, has a huge primary projection, clearly matching the length of the tertials and so runs in at 100%. This elimination finally leaves three particularly grey sylvia warblers, which is where our real scrutiny begins, so let's look at the pros and cons of those three:
Pros- has uniformly grey upperparts.
Cons- lacks the reasonably prominent pale wing feather edges of our mystery bird and it's primary projection is considerably shorter at around 50%.
Pros- has a similar 100% primary projection and the pale edges to the wing feathers match.
Cons- is usually more brownish-grey.
Pros- has a 100% primary projection and is particularly grey looking.
Cons- displays pale feather edges to the uppertail coverts and scapulars (first-winter), more distinct and defined pale edges to the wing feathers which also have conspicuously darker feather centres, in particular the tertials.
It is always worth remembering that when assessing photographs, actual colour hues can appear different than what we might expect or from how they appeared in the field but structural differences and features such as pale feather edges (when assessed carefully and considerately) are less likely to vary and to mislead. With this in mind, which species from the above three is therefore more likely to be the less variable, to permit the best fit for our mystery bird? The overall plumage of our mystery bird is afterall, rather uniform greyish with fairly subtle paler edges to the wing, plain centred tertials, and a very long, 100%, primary projection. Some entrants mentioned that it couldn't be a Garden Warbler as they'd never seen one so grey. Well now you have!
Only 6 entrants got this one right, with the majority of 55% going instead for Blackcap. Well done to Adrian Dancy, Henry Cook, Dennis Latham, James Latham, Helen Garwood and Joey Eccles in what turned out to be one of the most difficult photos of the year!
Garden Warbler, Bempton, September 2010 (Peter Welch)
Out of our magnificent 40 entrants this month only a miniscule 10% got both birds correct and that makes their success all the more tasty. A big round of applause please for Adrian Dancy, Henry Cook, Dennis Latham and Helen Garwood.
The eagle eyed will have noticed one eminent name missing from the above list though, that of our current leader of Paul Brown for yes, he is human afterall! Despite this, the leader board changes not as everyone else in the chasing pack got it wrong too and so with two rounds remaining it's still all to play for. Afterall it really is just for fun ☺