A blog mainly about birds and birding, to supplement my website I shall add new posts on an ad hoc basis as and when I have something I think is worth sharing, whether that’s an interesting bird, something I’ve learned, perhaps about identification, or something that’s aroused my curiosity. Often there will be questions, some of which you might be able to answer... please use the comments!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

More on Sparrows

I just posted about the variation in sparrows on Sicily, but there's one more thing that aroused my curiosity. Some of them seemed to have some grey in the crown.  Now for a species that was once half House Sparrow that might not seem very unexpected, but I've never seen a photo or description of an Italian Sparrow with grey in the crown.  I might expect it in northern Italy, where any ongoing gene flow with House Sparrow is most likely to be prevalent, but not in Sicily.

So two questions.  

Firstly, was this really grey in the crown, or was it just buffy-grey tips to the feathers that are remnants of juvenile plumage?  Or do adults have buffy-grey tips to the crown feathers at all in winter?  I think nearly all the photos I've seen of Italian Sparrow have been taken in spring and summer (when most visitors go to Italy I suppose), so maybe it's perfectly normal, just something I've not come across before?

Secondly, if it is really grey in the crown and not just the remnants of winter or immature plumage, does this occur throughout Italy?  I don't think I've ever seen it illustrated or referenced as within the range of variation of Italian Sparrow.

Italian Sparrow, Etna South, 25th April 2012

Italian Sparrow, Monteluce (Vendicari), 28th April 2012

When Italian looks Spanish

I was fascinated by the sparrows in Sicily.  Some of them looked like textbook Italian Sparrows while others looked pretty much like textbook Spanish Sparrows.  Apparently they're all Italian Sparrows, despite their Spanish appearance.  Many flocks contained both types of birds and anything in between.

If I've understood correctly, Italian Sparrows were originally hybrids between House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow, but the hybrids have become so stable and isolated from both House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow that they can now be considered a species in their own right.  The posh term is homoploid hybrid speciation, I think.  You can read all about  it here (which I discovered from this Surfbirds discussion - thanks to Brian & Alex).

I wonder though... are they really all that stable and isolated, all the way across their range?  For most of Italy, where they all resemble textbook Italian Sparrows (so far as I know - I've never been to most of Italy) that makes sense to me.  But here in Sicily, where I'd struggle to separate many of them from Spanish Sparrows, could it be that they are still subject to ongoing (or at least very recent) genetic exchange with Spanish Sparrows?  Or are some of them really Spanish Sparrows?

Anyway, here are some pics showing some of the variation:

Italian Sparrow, Siracusa, 23rd April

Italian Sparrows, Capo Murro di Porco, 2nd May

Italian Sparrows, Monteluce (Vendicari), 29th April

Italian Sparrow, Riserva Naturale Orientata Fiume Ciane, 23rd April

Italian Sparrow, Valle di Templi (Agrigento), 27th April

Italian Sparrow, Capo Murro di Porco, 3rd May

Italian Sparrows, Riserva Naturale Orientata Biviere di Gela, 28th April 2012

Italian Sparrow, Monteluce (Vendicari), 28th April 2012

Italian Sparrows, Granelli, 29th April 2012

Italian Sparrow, Etna South, 25th April 2012

Here are a couple of females... some of these looked more distinctive than some female Spanish Sparrows while I doubt if others could be safely separated from House Sparrow.

Italian Sparrow, Capo Murro di Porco,24th April 2012

Italian Sparrow, Etna South, 25th April 2012

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Just a Pied Fly?

No, I'm not talking about the Yorkshire "Atlas Flycatcher" whose DNA surprised everyone, this is about a female flycatcher I saw in Sicily recently.

First impressions were a grey bird with a prominent pale collar and an obvious pale rump.  I knew Pied Flycatcher could show a pale rump but I'd never seen it so obvious on a Pied, and I don't recall seeing Pied with such a pale collar before either.  This bird had a white patch at the base of the primaries, bigger than on many Pied Flycatchers, and my suspicions turned to Collared Flycatcher.  I couldn't recall the finer details of what to look for in tail and tertial pattern so took some photos and hoped I'd be proved right when I got home.  I had a nagging doubt - I'd seen Pied Flycatcher with this much white on the primary bases and ideally I'd hoped to see more on a Collared.

Well I'm back home now and I think my doubts were well-founded. Here's why I now think it was a Pied Flycatcher, not my first female Collared...

  • White at the base of the primaries not extensive enough - not reaching beyond the primary coverts
  • White on the outer tail feather broadest at the base (where it extends on to the inner web) and fizzling out at the tip - should be the other way round on Collared apparently
  • Although it gave the impression of having quite cold grey upperparts I think that impression was influenced by the grey nape and rump - the mantle and scapulars look quite warm brown in the photos
  • I don't think the upper tail-coverts don't look dark enough for Collared
  • Tertial fringes possibly not narrow enough for Collared?

Pied Flycatcher, Riserva Naturale Orientate Biviere di Gela, 28th April 2012

Now some questions:

  1. Are the contrastingly warm gingery ear-coverts significant for its identification?
  2. How normal is it for Pied Flycatcher to show such an obvious pale greyish collar and pale rump?
  3. Do you agree it's just a Pied Flycatcher?
  4. What do female Pied x Collared hybrids look like?

And now just for fun, here are a couple of straightforward vagrant male Collared Flycatchers from my archives:

Collared Flycatcher, Holme, 8th May 2011

Collared Flycatcher, Southwell, 2nd May 2009


A few images of Mount Etna erupting to kick off this new blog:

Mount Etna, 23rd-24th April 2012