The Tory Warbler

Suppress – until you are ready!

Aidan Kelly got in touch about a warbler seen on Tory Island, off the north coast of Donegal last month. Aiden is a  former member of the IRBC and respected as cautious and skilled field observer. It’s yet another tale of how small elusive birds can provide great identification headaches. Multi-observed for many hours it nevertheless defied straight forward identification- and suggested something rare. I am always keen (too keen) to share interesting bird sightings. I am also a strong advocate of ignoring the pressure to put news out until you are sure. There is a big difference between finding and identifying rare birds – and just twitching them. I suspect some of those who demand instant news- are not amoung those who regularly find rare birds!

Read on…


“Early in September this year I was birding on Tory Island with Jim Dowdall, where we were joined by Derek Charles, Wilton Farrelly and Ian Graham. Jim flushed a very pale warbler from a small weedy field at East Town. The bird remained extremely flighty and elusive.  Despite Tory not having a huge amount of cover, there is plenty for a bird to hide itself in if it wants! After several hours we still hadn’t come to a definite decision on the id., such were the brief glimpses we were getting. Basically it was a small warbler with a very pale brownish colour above and off-white underparts, appearing overall the colour you might expect a Booted to look in the field. It seemed to show pale outer tail feathers during the brief views we were getting. The bill looked fine and thin, but long and dagger-like at times, during some of the views we were getting of it as it skulked in a dense bush.

A game of ‘cat and mouse’ ensued, and after 5-6 hours we still had not had good enough views to allow us to id. the bird! Most of these hours were spent trying to relocate it, after it would fly out of sight over some sheds from the biggest dense bush in East Town. It looked very pale and superficially phylloscopus-like in flight. After a few hours, I mentioned to Derek that I thought it probably was an extremely pale phyllosc. from the views and impressions I’d got so far, and he agreed. Soon afterwards, Derek and Ian had had enough frustration with this bird, and headed back to West Town to cover more of the island.

In the early afternoon,  and having lost it for about an hour, the rest of us  were about to concede that it probably was just a pale and faded phyllosc. and try to cover some more of the island, when we got a shout from Wilton who had picked it up about 80m away along the edge of a nearby field.

We rushed over and had our first view of the bird in the open, in bright sunshine.

It looked very pale and again superficially Booted-like with what appeared to be  paler outer tail feathers. The head pattern looked a bit odd though, with the bill still looking quite long and dagger-like.  I concentrated on getting a digi-scoped video record, and after a brief period when the bird sat fairly still, it flew out of sight and was never seen again. We searched for the next hour or so, and then had to head to catch the earlier ferry due to a forecast of deteriorating weather.  Looking so pale with dagger-like bill, our conclusion was that it might be a Booted/Sykes’s type and we put the news out as such, but did say that closer analysis of the video recording may lead to its identity being resolved. And thankfully it did. Later on, on the larger screen of a computer, and with some assistance from Killian Mullarney, we were able to confirm that the bird is, as we first suspected, a very pale and faded Phyllosc, probably a Willow Warbler.

It has sustained some feather damage to its face, and it may have been missing some feathers, this causing the bill to look longer and more dagger-like that a normal phyllosc.

The impression of lighter outer tail feathers may have just been due to back-lighting and normal translucency. With the benefit of being able to look more critically at the video-grabs than was possible in the field, it clearly has more the appearance of a phyllosc after all. While it was a disappointment to us to realise that we had ended up concluding the wrong identification on this difficult and non co-operative bird in the field, it was good to be able to resolve it in the end with the help of a short bit of shakey digi-scoped video footage.

Anyway, the main lesson learnt about this event is that it is always necessary to take as much time as is needed to be completely certain of your id. especially when a bird is not co-operating, and not to feel under any pressure to get the news out quickly, until you are totally happy with the identification. In these days of instant news and texting, birders can all to easily succumb to pressure to get the news out before the identification has been fully resolved.”

Aidan G Kelly

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About Martin Garner

I am a Free Spirit
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2 Responses to The Tory Warbler

  1. thedrunkbirder says:

    Amen to that Aidan! Did you get any video footage? Might be interesting to post it if you can.

  2. Andy Lawson says:

    Yup, live and learn and NEVER trust just one ‘diagnostic’ feature. Always get a second one before putting the news out 😉

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