Juvenile Baltic Gull candidate

at Richmond Bank, Cheshire

Delighted to get an email from Ian McKerchar. It’s immediately apparent that his photos of a juvenile Lesser Black-backed type Gull are ‘of the type’. The hypothetical Baltic Gull type. Just like 2+ birds at Flamborough in Sept. Just like several from North Norfolk recorded by ardent gull watchers in August/ Sept over several years.


Hi Martin,

I took these photos on August 15th this year at Richmond Bank, Cheshire and to say the bird stood out like a sore thumb was something of an understatement. Given that all the many hundreds of juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gulls present at the time were typically considerably darker than this bird you can see why. It’s head and underparts were strikingly pale and the upperparts had a frankly beautiful, almost scalloped look to them with the feather edges much paler than anything else around it. It was typically long winged but small billed and had something of a greyer ‘shawl’ around the neck. I couldn’t place it at the time and initial thoughts ranged from juvenile Caspian Gull (which is fairly obviously wasn’t!) to fuscus Lesser Black-backed Gull. When the bird finally flew though it displayed strikingly white underwing coverts which really threw me as I didn’t realise juvenile fuscus apparently displayed such and I expected the usual Lesser Black-backed Gull brown coverts. I’ve seen many hundreds of fuscus over the years but never a juvenile so after some fairly rudimentary investigation, including your recent thoughts on the subject, it seems white coverts may be something of a feature of juvenile fuscus?
All the very best,  Ian
Ian McKerchar
County Bird Recorder, Greater Manchester
and king gull: Chris Gibbins commented on Ian’s photos:
Wow, looks really good, as you say.  Seems to me that this bird has everything we could expect – both structurally and plumage wise. Na-sayers will say we cant rule out an intermedius with 100% certainty, which is fair up to a point; but this does not mean it isn’t fuscus.  Jizz, size, plumage pattern and underwing are all great.  At the moment I think this is as good an unringed candidate as we might hope for – wasted bill and Common Gull like head in some images are striking.
Posted in Gulls | 1 Comment

Seebohm’s Wheatear reaches Britain?

by way of introduction

by Martin G

Steve Votier is a top-notch observer; I was personally a little miffed  a few years ago when he beat me to finding Caspian Gull in Sheffield (how very dare he) even though he only lived there for a few months. So I am grateful for Steve’s honesty and willingness to explore a seeming ID faux pas with what is to actually a fascinating bird. The title above is mine not Steve’s and invites exploration rather than being an announcement :). So can they and have they? See Steve’s last comment: responses welcome.

The Lizard, Cornwall, 2nd October 2013

by Steve Votier

Preamble Sometimes it’s best to forget certain experiences in birding and I felt this way about a wheatear I found in the Lizard Village on 2nd October 2013. I’ve thought about it a lot since then and while I don’t think I covered my self in glory I wonder whether I might have stumbled onto something of interest. I had been out all morning with Ilya Maclean and Rob Curtis. These guys had to leave early afternoon, but the conditions were good so I stayed on. A scattering of interesting migrants (wryneck, grasshopper warbler, spotted flycatchers, whinchats etc) kept me interested and one of the features of the day was good numbers of northern wheatear. As always, I had spent much time checking these for something different. Mid-afternoon I had what I assumed was that much anticipated rare-wheatear experience. A small group of northern wheatears were perched on a pile of manure in fields within a sheltered corner of the Lizard Village and among them I flushed a female wheatear with jet-black axillaries and much white in the tail… Surely I was ‘in’…


lizard wh 1a Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). A wheatear with black axillaries was firmly on my radar as a ‘rare’. This feature was very striking in the field and is not simply a photographic artifact. Over the next hour or so, this bird gave me the run-around. However no matter the angle or conditions it looked interesting throughout. Very interesting.

Lizard wh 2a Wheatear, Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). Initial impressions were of a small pale wheatear with dark wings, a plain face and long legs. Black-eared Wheatear?  

I finally managed to note a range of key features that should have helped my identification: striking black axillaries; extensive white in the tail that seemed to mirror the classic Pied/Black-eared pattern (but see below); small size; very white underparts contrasting with peach wash on the breast only and white throat; rather dark contrasting wings. I considered a variety of options but the only thing that seemed to match was Black-eared Wheatear and, given the rather cold appearance, most likely melanoleuca. Pied Wheatear was ruled out straight away – this bird was not dark enough either above or below and lacked of any pale fringes to the upperparts. Nevertheless, it did not look like any Black-eared Wheatear I had seen previously so I was a little concerned. However I reconciled this with the fact I had never seen eastern Black-eared in autumn, but had seen some very variable female melanoleuca in Greece in spring. Also, maybe this species was more difficult than I had previously thought? Anyway, with an underwing and tail pattern like that, what else could it be? I had to make a call and I decided that the evidence was very strongly in favour of Black-eared Wheatear and I therefore released the news.

Lizard wh 3aa Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). This bird was consistently different from nearby northern wheatears in a number of respects.

Several birders arrived and saw the bird, which was now much more settled and feeding in horse paddocks, loosely associating with 3-4 northern wheatears. Tony Blunden (top birder who lives in the Lizard Village) and Ilya were able to capture a number of digital images. There was not a great deal of discussion about identification, although several did comment that it was not quite as anticipated. I felt this was partly attributable to collective experience of nominate bird on Scilly in 2011. At this stage I was focusing more on establishing whether this was eastern or western. Maybe not… The next morning I was busy, but by mid-morning I noticed on a number of websites that this bird had been re-identified as a northern wheatear from photographs…. I was less than happy. However, when I got a chance to look at Tony’s images, I could see why. The bird really didn’t look much like a Black-eared Wheatear at all. Oh dear. Oh bloody dear. What had I done? Ilya and I managed to get back down to the Lizard later that afternoon and spent several hours scouring the still numerous wheatears in the area. There was no further sign, so the only option was to resolve the identification from existing images.

Lizard wh4a Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). Where is it in relation to the northern wheatear? In the cold light of day this looked like a wheatear and very little like a black-eared. What to do?

The more I looked at the images the more it just looked like a northern wheatear and the resemblance to Black-eared Wheatear was superficial: the breast was too clean; the upperparts not the right colour; the tail too short and the face rather too well-marked. Moreover, while images of the tail did show a narrow terminal band, the tail was not typical of Black-eared Wheatear. In fact when you ignore the black axillaries the case for a rare wheatear was thin, very thin indeed. So what was it and what to do?

Lizard wh 5a Lizard wh 6a  Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). These images show the rather narrow black terminal band. The tail was not right for typical Black-eared Wheatear however, although the outer tail feathers are missing.  

As I mentioned at the start I really wanted to forget this bird. We all make mistakes, but this felt like a total howler. Whatever it was, I don’t think will ever be resolved. The possibility exists that it was a northern wheatear, but I find this very hard to believe given the colour of the axillaries. The overall colouration (especially the very white underparts) is possibly within in the range of northern, but I have never seen anything approaching this in an autumn bird in the past. I did consider the possibility that it might be an adult that has not undergone a complete summer moult, but this can be excluded given the relatively fresh plumage throughout. Therefore the argument for this being within the normal variation of Northern Wheatear is very weak. Seebohm’s Wheatear? One of the inevitable processes I went through (and I know Ilya, Tony and Rob did the same) was to look for a match on-line. It’s not the most sophisticated of birding techniques, but can be helpful. When you do this Seebohm’s Wheatear seems to fit the bill. Certainly the black axillaries were a fit, as was the restricted black terminal tail band http://www.leedingain.com/2013/04/seebohms-wheatear.html. Moreover, some images from Morocco of female Seebohn’s show birds with very white underparts contrasting with warm tones around the face and a ‘feel’ not dissimilar to the Lizard bird http://grahamsphoto.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/birding-in-morocco-part-three.html. I have not seen anything on Seebohm’s Wheatear in autumn, but presumably features such as underwing and tail pattern are consistent throughout the year. To be clear, I am not claiming this as a Seebohm’s Wheatear. I simply don’t know anywhere near enough about this taxon. However I do think that there is something to be learnt here and maybe if some more detailed information about them emerged in autumn, then this might be a slightly different story. If anyone has experience of this or of northern wheatear with similar plumage characters, I would love to hear more.  

Lizard wh 7a Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). The upperparts look very cold and grey in this image and contrast with the russet rear ear-coverts. Another feature of this bird was the rather dark wings (created by narrow pale fringes to the coverts) – in the field I (erroneously) convinced myself that this mirrored the pattern of an adult Black-eared Wheatear…

Steve Votier

Comment from Nils van Duivendik

Hi Martin

Female Seebohm’s  have dark underwing-cov and auxiliaries with pale lines, but overall looking dark, male have solid blackish underwing-cov and auxiliaries (in line with many dark-throated wheatears). This looks like a first winter so sexing is probable not easy (but I have not find any picture of a autumn seebohmi so far). Anyway I think that those blackish underwing-cov and auxiliaries on a fresh bird like this are very interesting, especially in combination with the rest of the features (tail pattern and subtly different plumage tones). It also looks small against the Northern on the picture but that is maybe an Icelandic/ Greenland bird. Stephen also said ‘long legged’, that’s new for me so have to look in the literature if that is a seebohmi character too (a quick look at pictures on the internet suggest that indeed it could be).
Wow, this bird seemingly ticks some pro-seebohmi boxes…
Cheers, Nils

seebohms vs northern

Spring female Northern Wheatear (left) and female Seebohm’s Wheatear (right). Natural History Museum photo by Nils Van Duivendijk.


Spurn Bird Oct 2007

Don’t know if this is the same kind of beast as the Cornish bird or not, but while chatting with friends, the subject an intriguing wheatear at Spurn came out. Around for about  a week in October 2007 it tricked same into thinking it might be a Black-eared Wheatear due to small size and light jizz, dark/blackish undewing coverts and other plumage aspects. Thanks to  Bill Aspin, John Wright, Adam Hutt and Gary Taylor.



Above, interesting wheatear... Spurn, October 2007, Bill Aspin

Dominic Mitchell kindly provided instructive shots from Morocco:

© Dominic Mitchell_Seebohm's Wheatear_3367
© Dominic Mitchell_Seebohm's Wheatear_3434

Above: female and young male Seebohm’s Wheatear, late April 2009 at Oukaimeden, Morocco. © Dominic Mitchell (www.birdingetc.com)

Lee Dingain provided lovely shots of adult male Seebohm’s Wheatear. See more on his blog

seebohms_wheater-2 .

Posted in Chats and Thrushes | 4 Comments

Britain’s Day-Flying Moths: Book Review

by Gaynor Chapmank9974 

David Newland et.al., Princeton Univerity Press, £17.95.

Paperback, 224pp.

Sensibly, the authors of this field guide, produced in association with Butterfly Conservation, have adopted geographical rather than political boundaries in their book, including the Republic of Ireland. 155 species are covered in detail, including more than 20 micro moths, and there are an impressive 320 colour photographs. Since most moths fly by night, the book includes those night-flying species you’re most likely to disturb as you’re gardening or striding through vegetation on daytime walks.

Two of my personal gripes with field guides are 1) species maps and text appearing on separate pages to the illustrations and 2) having to strain my eyes to read the text and index. Happily there are few such issues with this book. All the information you need for each species fits on a single page without loss of clarity. A clear, reasonably-sized font is used throughout and the index is colour-coded with bold red for the main species accounts, black for those mentioned only in relation to other species and italic blue for additional photographs.


Indeed this book is a triumph of design. Small enough to carry in the field, it comes with a protective PVC cover and a millimetre rule for field measurements printed in the inside back cover. Species are arranged by family, with an introduction to each group. Half-page photographs allow for magnification and are often breathtaking. The upper edge of each photo fades into soft focus, misting the division between text and picture. A colour-banded box next to the text provides a quick and easy reference to status, where and when the moth can be found, forewing length (a bar in the margin also shows this in visual form) larval foodplant and similar species. The maps are also colour-coded, and photo magnification and Bradley & Fletcher numberof the species are given.

Much additional information has been included, with sections on how to distinguish butterflies and moths, biology, taxonomy, key family features, habitat, gardening for moths and a glossary appearing before the species accounts, while a quick reference table and sections on conservation, recording and further reading are at the back.


Photo magnification sometimes leads to a loss of sharpness, and page numbers occasionally merge into the background of the photographs they are printed over, despite the publisher’s attempt to combat this by employing both black and white font-colours. But these are minor criticisms.

More disappointing is the lack of site information. The Chalk Carpet, for example, is found on the cliffs of Flamborough, my home, and more people recording the species could potentially add much to our knowledge of it. Sites for such scarcer species could have been listed briefly at the end of the description, or in the text box. The authors have missed an opportunity here, since to my knowledge, no such book on the subject has yet appeared for moths.

This is an informative and attractive guide, which with the inclusion of site information could have been a ‘must-buy’ for up to intermediate-level lepidopterists.

Gaynor Chapman.


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Yellow-legged Gull: first winter

with white(ish) underwings

by Chris Gibbins


I thought Birding Frontiers readers might be interested in this one. I saw this first winter Yellow-legged Gull (michahellis) last week (mid October) in Spain.  Normal YLG other than exceptionally pale underwing.  I think many YLGs moult underwing coverts as part of the partial post juvenile moult and so some can grow in some very white second generation feathers – so such birds, perhaps like this individual, have something of a Caspian Gull pitfall if you only get flight views….

This is the palest I’ve seen so far (though notice that the longest auxiliaries are still heavily blotched). For more typical underwing go here





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Cape May Warbler on Unst

2nd for Britain (and everywhere else)

Gripping stuff. Spoke to Brydon Thomason earlier about Mike Pennington’s uber rarity find today at Alma Manse, nr Baltasound on Britain’s most Northerly Isle.

Brydon’s  photos from this afternoon. BOOM!




DSC_7645_Cape-May-Warbler_webCape May Warbler, Alma, Unst 23rd October 2013 by Brydon Thomason

Think maybe we should just go and live there for the whole autumn…?

Shetland Nature.indd


Posted in American Wood Warblers, Shetland | 1 Comment

Daurian Shrike at Flamborough

and Identification of First Winters

by Martin G.

It’s a privilege to live at Flamborough near some very keen and capable birders. I was reminded of this last Tuesday morning. I arrived back from Shetland on the Monday evening (14th) and by tuesday lunchtime had seen Dusky Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Warbler and this. An ‘Isabelline Shrike’ Found by Phil C. earlier in the am and only seen briefly it finally gave itself up ear he cliff top. So which type/taxa/species 🙂 is it?

2 types are recognised as having occurred in Western Europe. The Daurian Shrike ‘isabellinus’ and the Turkestan Shrike ‘phoenicuroides’.

All photos of Flamborough bird by Martin Garner, 15th October 2013

Daurian Shrike 1cy m Flamborough 15.10.13

In a nutshell: this is a first winter bird. My gut reaction on seeing it was that it looked like a Daurian, albeit a darker example. Daurian is seemingly occurring much more regularly in Britain in recent years than Turkestan.  Like Siberian Chiffchaffs and Pallid Swifts (and a host of others) seeing these shrikes in the right light conditions/ accurate photos is absolutely critical (and often not easy)

Key features on the Flamborough bird:

  • Overall gingery wash to the brownish upperparts
  • Gingery orange colouring prominent on the flanks but extending from rear flanks all way up to below ear coverts (hard to see latter).  Centre of throat and central breast/ belly white.
  • Tertials darker brown but not strong contrast with uppers. Mask slightly darker brown with gingery wash at some angles- not blackish brown
  • Rump brighter orange with only very weak dark marks on some feathers tips
  • Orange centred median coverts

First winter Turkestan should have cold earth brown/ grey brown uppers with darker (almost blackish) mask and flight feathers. Uppers contrasting strongly with mostly clean white underparts (marked with blacker bars/chevrons). More often retained juvenile feathers in rump and mantle/ scaps with white or black centres to median coverts (not orange!).

Here’s the Flamborough bird:

Daurian Shrike 1cy b Flamborough 15.10.13

Daurian Shrike 1cy k Flamborough 15.10.13

At close range and in flat light and lovely gingery tone warmed the upperparts. The ‘mask’ could vary from darker to paler depending on angle with, again a gingery tone washed through.

Daurian Shrike 1cy h Flamborough 15.10.13

Daurian Shrike 1cy g Flamborough 15.10.13

The flight feathers, especially tertials were not especially dark (sooty/blackish) and contrasty

Daurian Shrike 1cy f Flamborough 15.10.13Orange/ gingery wash went from rear flanks to the pale area below mask (lower ear coverts). Underpart barring/chevrons more brown than black.

Daurian Shrike 1cy o Flamborough 15.10.13Like my favourite chocolates, the median coverts were orange centred (black or white centred in Turkestan). The small upper tertials and greater wing coverts almost had a subterminal orange band.

All photos above of Flamborough bird by Martin Garner, 15th October 2013

What about intergrades?

This question was posed by some. This study by EN Panov (2009) demonstrated spatial isolation between phoenicuroides and isabellinus (speculigerus in Panov) in a potential contact zone. Furthermore a time difference in arrival of 2 months on breeding grounds between the 2 taxa was noted. Panov’s conclusion is that, while there are occasional examples of interbreeding the evidence presented suggests the 2 should be treated as independent species. One of the consequences for observers in Western Europe is that intergrades are arguable likely to be rarer than ‘pure’ birds. Perhaps we should approach identifying firsts winters (and the somewhat easier adults) with renewed confidence.

Variation not Intergrades. Seems to me learning about variation in young Daurian and Turkestan Shrikes (think of the variables of red/grey/brown seen in Red-backed Shrikes) is the key. Here’s a plainer first winter Daurian Shrike from this last week in Lincolnshire, still showing the same ‘themes’ as the Flamborough bird.

Adult male Daurian Shrike in Cornwall

Meanwhile, a fellow Shetland fan, Paul Bright-Thomas, emailed to say he found an ‘Orange on a Stick’  at Pendeen earlier this month. Superb! Paul’s photos below:



Posted in Flamborough, Shrikes | Leave a comment

A Tricky Subalpine Warbler

A Subalpine Trap : an interesting “cantillans” makes things hard !

by Andrea Corso, Michele Viganò, Ottavio Janni & THE MISC

The Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans (sensu latu) complex is one of the most interesting Sylvia taxa in the Western Palearctic; its variety of taxa, complicated taxonomy and identification – not least its obscure nomenclature, which warrants an in-depth review (see Brambilla et al. 2006, 2008, 2009; Baccetti, et al. 2007; Svensson, in prep.; Corso & Janni, pers.obs.) – its distribution and the poorly-known female/juvenile plumages of the various taxa makes it truly intriguing for any serious birder.

When faced with a bird that does not neatly fall into a box, the identification of Subalpine Warblers becomes even harder, and this is the story of one of those moments that forces you to question your knowledge, which all of a sudden does not seem to be nearly as thorough as you thought! We are all quite familiar with Subalpine Warblers, since Italy is undoubtedly the best country in Europe to study all the various taxa and observe them in large numbers both during migration and on their breeding grounds. But when coincidence and variability throw a spanner in the works, then we all need to go further.

Shirihai et al. (2001), in their seminal work on Sylvia Warblers, report that “Specific separation of female-like (including 1st winter) plumages of Ménétries’s from Subalpine poses one of the greatest field identification challenges among Sylvia.”

We realised just how true this is in November 2012 in our birding paradise, the island of Linosa. It was the evening of November 5th, and we were quite happy with our haul over the previous few days: an obliging Daurian Shrike just 50 metres away from an Olive-backed Pipit (3rd of the autumn in Sicily), a Rustic Bunting in a tiny vineyard near our house, several Yellow-browed Warblers alongside with some good snorkelling – try doing that on Shetland in November! -and more…

AC was carefully studying an Acro showing characters of Marsh Warbler, a rare migrant in Sicily, when on the same olive tree a Sylvia sp. appeared on the highest branches. It was very pale, uniformly sandy coloured with…a strikingly contrasting BLACK TAIL !!!! Alarm bellsstarted to ring in the rarity-hunter’s addled brain…

The most obvious ID was Subalpine, but in a place like Linosa everything is possible, and Ménétries’s Warbler is already on Italy’s impressive list (536 species despite having very few active birders – the list could be much longer!).

After a quick glimpse the bird flew off, showing a featureless body with an obvious black tail: almost like a juvenile Red-breasted Flycatcher (or a Blackstart).

Do you know that feeling when the heart is pounding, breathing is as difficult as it would be under water, walking is as hard as having wooden legs or walking on the moon (to quote The Police J )… OK, that was the feeling AC had. He alerted Igor Maiorano and the others to have a careful look as this could be “something” really epic.

For the next half an hour, we studied the bird: in the field the tertials did not look particularly contrasting and the pale fringes disappeared in the intense Sicilian sun, so they that they looked plain, even under prolonged observation! The alula was almost solidly black with broad and obvious pale fringing, contrasting as a black patch against the uniform wing, the primary projection appeared very short, the wing itself being rather round-looking with a round-tipped impression, the wing-tip falling short the longest undertail coverts (in albistriata it is level with them or longer), the bill appeared deep-based and rather down curved but quite short, the base of the lower mandible was clearly pinkish tinged, the lores were very pale, and the eye-ring very bright and conspicuous.

The sunset arrived too soon, and OJ, MV and several others did not arrive in time to see the bird, as they were birding on the opposite side of the island (the area that we call “the dark side” since there is no mobile coverage and is always risky to go birding there ).

But the next day the bird was still in the same trees, and we all could study the bird in the field: the contrasting black tail was impressive but as noticed by AC the previous day, it was re-growing !

The bird uttered a call unlike Ménétries’s Warbler calls we known, but it also sounded different, at least slightly, from typical Italian Subalpines, obviously from the diagnostic double note of albistriata, and of course totally unlike Moltoni’s wren-like trill. A sound recording was secured by MV to obtain sonograms.

The tail pattern was also interesting: T6 (or R6 if you like) was a better fit for Subalpine sensu latu, being almost wholly pale but for a long, narrow tongue” running along the outer edge of the inner web; but the pattern of T5 (R5) was however better for Ménétries’s, being fully slate grey with a blackish tinge and a well-marked white apical notch.

We were still a little puzzled, chiefly due to the tail pattern and colour and contrast and the short-looking primary projection.

We decided to ask the opinion of our friend Yoav Perlman on the plumage – as he has handled and observed in the field far more Ménétries’s Warblers than we have – and to consult our sound-guru Magnus Robb, from the Sound Approach to Birding team, for an opinion on the call.

However, before their opinions arrived later on, the night brings good counsel and often nice dreams (in OJ’s case,he dreamt of the Daurian Shrike two nights before actually finding it!) … and the day after we decided that the mystery Sylvia was most likely a “Subalpine Warbler” – perhaps from the North African population (inornata) – which had lost is tail and was re-growing it with an adult-type pattern and COLOUR. Tertial’s pattern and call sonograms indicate this identification.

All in all, as Martin says – always learning !

TAIL PATTERN: tail pattern is reported to be a very helpful clue in several references, including Alstrom et al. (1991) and Shirihai, et al. (2001), with the T5 (R5) on adult-type tail constantly illustrated as different in the two species, Subalpines showing more white, as a wedge intruding into the feather along the shaft, and the pale patch itself less well-defined, while in Ménétries’s the apical “notch” or “blotch” of T5 is smaller, rounder, and very well-defined against a more intensely blackish ground colour. The odd Sylvia from Linosa has re-grown its tail into an adult-type (the feathers being dark and round-tipped instead of sand-colored, pointed, and narrow as in juveniles): T5 is a better fit for Ménétries’s, but we found an obvious amount of variability in tail pattern among the “Subalpines” complex, with some “Subalpines” showing much less white on T5 and T4 (or nothing on T4) and with the pale areas being smaller and more demarked (Shirihai, et al. (2001), but mostly see Svensson, in prep. and photos). Also, in juvenile “Subalpines” the tail is surely much paler than in our bird and in Ménétries’s, more sandy-buffish brown, while in adult “Subalpines” is darker grey, sooty grey or dark grey blackish tinged (mostly on the distal part). So the re-growing tail on our mystery bird showing adult-like colour is obviously contrasting with the pale juvenile body!

TERTIAL PATTERN: this is one of the clinching characters and therefore one of the most important. It should be underlined that in the field it was very hard to really be sure about the pattern, as in some angles and with intense light the well-defined pale fringes fade away and almost disappear, making the entire tertials look rather pale and uniform. Also, caution should be paid on any moulted or worn tertials, where the fringing can narrower or be less well-defined than usual on Subalpines. In our bird, the photos show the fringes to be rather bright and well-defined, with a rather demarked dark centre, making the bird a“Subalpine”. Fringes are usually better defined in S Italian taxon and on albistriata, less so in Moltoni’s Warbler (but what about Western taxa such Spanish and N African ones?), but this is however quite variable in all taxa. In Ménétries’s Warbler, the dark centres on all tertials are not well demarked, being less dark and with less defined borders than in Subalpine, being in fact diffuse and not much contrasting with the suffuse fringings, all in all they appear more uniform and less obviously patterned.

BILL: the bill appeared rather heavy and broadly based; this is better for Ménétries’s (Shirihai, et al.2001) as this species usually has a broader-based, often longer and more decurved bill than Subalpine (even more than a Sardinian Warbler in fact ! – see figure). However, without direct comparison this is pretty hard to judge in the field, and this feature is better assessed in the hand. Also, sure it is variable among sex/age and taxa groups of “Subalpine”.

CALLS: the calls are distinctive, but we read in both Svensson et al (2010) and in Alstrom et al. (1991) that they variable, with the latter authors reporting that Ménétries’s also has a “dack” call which might resemble some Subalpines calls. Our bird from Linosa had a call that matched “nominate” Subalpine, but which to our ears sounded a bit different from those we are used to in Italy. Could it be an inornata from Tunisia, whose calls we don’t know ? Also, it would be nice to find any sound recording of the “dack” call of Ménétries’s, the one reported in some quoted references…

WING PATTERN : Shirihai, et al. (2001) mention differences in the alula pattern, with Ménétries’s showing in general a blacker centred alula contrasting more with the rest of the wing, and showing better-defined and broader edging; however, our bird on Linosa had such a pattern and we found this to be highly variable and often overlapping. The differences on wing-formula (like the length of P1 and the P1:PC ratio) are only helpful in the hand or in very close up good photos.

PRIMARY PROJECTION (PP): reported to be shorter in Ménétries’s, with primaries tips more bunched together; whereas PP is longer, narrower, and more pointed in Subalps, with 7 well spaced primaries. In our bird the PP was pretty short and the wing looked short and rounded; however, we found that some birds (some taxa) of the Subalpine complex, like for ex. Moltoni’s Warbler could show a shorter PP, on account possibly of their different migration pattern (the shorter distance migrants having a shorter PP). Could the Linosa bird be an inornata (as Moltoni’s was excluded straight away by the call) ? And does inornata, being from N Africa, really have a shorter PP? This should be further investigated …

BEHAVIOUR: behaviour is one of the most helpful identification clues for many birds, and is crucial is separating two very similar looking Sylvia like Tristram’s and Spectacled Warblers, as well as the two species we are discussing here – in fact Ménétries’s habit of constantly twisting and fanning its tail is not shared by Subalps, which usually hold their tail still or move it slightly up and down. Indeed, our bird always held its tail still.

We finally concluded, supported by Yoav Pearlman and Magnus Robb’s opinions on plumage and call features, that the bird was more likely a “Subalpine Warbler”, possibly a North African one (inornata).



  1. Sylvia Warbler, identified as “Subalpine Warbler” (sensulatu) from Linosa Island, Pelagie Archipelago (Agrigento, Sicily) from November 5th 2012. Note the very pale sandy coloured plumage with a richer tawny tinge on mantle, the bright contrasting throat with creamy-apricot or buffish tinged flanks and breast side, the very pale lores, the obvious eye-ring, the be-coloured bill, the yellowish-flesh legs and the short looking tail. (Igor Maiorano – MISC)2
  2. Same bird in flight; note the strikingly contrasting slaty blackish tail, almost solidly black on the distal portion, which combined to the white lateral side is giving to the bird an almost Red-breasted Flycatcher impression. This is typical of Ménétries’s Warbler rather than any juvenile “Subalpines”, but the tail was re-growing with an adult-type pattern and color, therefore darker than in juv. and obviously contrasting with the pale body. (Igor Maiorano – MISC)3
  3. Same bird. Note the very dark black alula with obvious pale fringing, reported in field guides to be more typically found in Ménétries’s Warbler rather than in “Subalpines”. However, we find this character highly variable and therefore of limited – if any- use. (MicheleViganò – MISC) 4
  4. Same bird in a different light and angle – note the dark centred tertials with well visible and contrasting being well defined pale fringing. This seems to be the clinching character for it being an odd Subalpine Warbler rather than a Ménétries’s Warbler. However, note that in the field the fringing where never so obvious and the contrast never appear such dramatic, appearing the tertials rather uniform ! It is hard indeed …!!(Michele Viganò – MISC) 5
  5. Same bird – note the similarities with the juv. Ménétries’s shown in fig. 15, especially the very pale lores giving a “wide open” face looking, the complete and wide pale eye-ring, the short and thick based bill (with a pale base, appearing horn-grey but that in the field shown a pinkish-flesh hue or tinge). (Michele Viganò – MISC) 6
  6. Same bird – note the tail pattern with T6 almost entirely white but a long narrow blackish sandy-grey “tongue” running along the outer margin of the inner web, like in most “Subalpines”, while T5 showing only a small white apical notch as in Mènètries’s. Note however that tail pattern is variable in the cantillans-complex and “Western Subalpines” including Moltoni’s W could show similar pattern as in our Linosa bird. (Michele Viganò – MISC) 7
  7. Same bird (Michele Viganò – MISC) 8
  8. Same bird- sonograms of the call. Note the clear and sharp tack or dgiack calls, readily different from Moltoni’s and double notes of albistriata, but what about inornata and Western Subalpines? What about the “dack” call type reported for Ménétries’s by Alstrom, et al. (1991) and some other references? Would be interesting to compare sonograms of all these taxa. (Michele Viganò – MISC) 9
  9. Typical tail pattern of Eastern taxa of “Subalpines”, where the T5 pattern is different from the Linosa bird and from typical adult Ménétries’s with an obvious “tooth” from the tip into the feather along the shaft. (A.Corso, Museo Civico di Zoologia di Roma, MCZR) 10
  10. Typical T6 and T5 pattern of Eastern Subalps, with a quite long “tooth” or “tongue” on T5. (A.Corso, MuseoCivico di Zoologia di Roma, MCZR) 11i
  11. Typical tail pattern of a Moltoni’s Warbler from Sardinia, showing T5 pattern like in Linosa bird and on adult Ménétries’s Warbler, showing only a small and defined “notch” on the tip of T5 (the call however is always different from those taxa). (A.Corso, Museo Civico di Zoologia di Roma, MCZR) 12
  12. Same tail from below (A.Corso, Museo Civico di Zoologia di Roma, MCZR) 13i
  1. Bill seen from below in Sardinian (left) and Ménétries’s Warbler (right) to show the stronger, shorter and deeper based bill in the latter, similarly to the differences noticed when compared to Central and Western Subalpines taxa. (A. Corso, courtesy of Tring, NHM). 14i
  2. A beautiful 2nd cy male Ménétries’s Warbler from Israel. Note the diffuse dark centre on the new (moulted adult) middle tertial which also shown vague and diffuse fringing, differently to Subalpines and to Sardinian (Yoav Perlman). 15i
  3. A juv. Ménétries’s Warbler from Israel. Note that the bird is almost identical to the odd Sylvia from Linosa, and would be indeed identical if the tertials would not be typically more uniform, homogenously pale with only slightly darker suffuse center which contrast only barely with the unmarked, badly defined and not marked suffuse fringing. This would seems to be the clinching character to identify any juv. Subalpine from Ménétries’s. (Y.Perlman) 16
  4. Tail of the same juv. of Fig. 15 – note how much black is already in juvenile plumage, note the pattern of T6 with lot of black along the centre and along the shaft, and T5 fully black with a small white notch at the tip. Note as well the uniform tertials lacking any strong contrasting pattern. 17
  5. A typical adult female Ménétries’s Warbler from Eastern Turkey, Igdir (Michele Viganò- the MISC), June 2013. Note a very typical ad female with very uniform cold silk grey upperparts lacking almost altogether any rusty tinge, very dull underparts, broad diffuse greyish-brownish grey fringing to tertials, dull barely marked pale lores and the distinctive long-looking dark black tail. 18
  6. Same bird in different position. Note the short and blunt primary projection and the constantly moved tail in a cat-like fashion (as in Tristram’s Warbler and contrariwise in Subalpine and Spectacled). 19
  7. Same bird. Note the clear cut pattern of the T6 and the pattern of T5. 20
  8. A fresh juvenile Italian Subalpine Warbler. Note the bright rusty tinge to wings and head, the well demarked and defined pale lores and the pale tail. by Davide D’Amico21
  9. Same bird from different angle. Note as from some angle at least the central tail may appears rather blackish tinged , however, note the obvious and marked rusty tinge to crown (forming as a little “hat” against the pale lores and subtle supercilium). Underparts bright milky white by Davide D’Amico.
  10. Sound record of the call of the bird from Linosa <here>


We whish to thanks as always Dr. Carla Marangoni, curator of the ornithological section at MuseoCivico di Zoologia in Roma (MCZR), where a great collection of “Subalpine Warbler” (sensulatu) skins are preserved. On the same way a warm thanks goes to the Tring, NHM staff to which we are very much indebted for the most important help for any of our birds plumages studies : so a warm thanks goes to Katrina Kook, Robert-Pries Johanes, Mark Adams and the others working at Tring and that helped in various way.

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