A PHOTO DISCUSSION ON NUTTING'S FLYCATCHER IDENTIFICATION:
Part 1: WING PATTERN
text © 2003 Don Roberson
all photographs are copyrighted © 2003
by the photographers cited; used here with permission


Under the topic of "Wing Pattern," we will consider the patterns formed by the colorful edges to the remiges, and then consider primary projection.

WING PANELS: This topic was introduced on the opening page of this set. The remiges (flight feathers) were divided into three elements, or panels:

  1. primary edges
  2. outer secondary edges
  3. tertials and inner secondary edges
Let us first look at Ash-throated Flycatcher. This is a photo taken on or near the breeding grounds in late spring (the slide is imprinted "May 1976"; photo © J. Van Remsen) at Ft. Piute, San Bernardino Co., California. Thus the edges of the remiges are somewhat worn, but their color pattern is still quite obvious.
We can also examine the wing in more detail to examine the numbering system used in the banding literature (e.g., Pyle 1997) and consider other points. The numbering system is designed to match the way in which most birds conduct their molt. The primaries ("P" in shorthand) are molted from the inner ones to the outer ones, and are therefore numbered from the inside out. The secondaries ("S" in shorthand) are replaced from the outermost to the innermost, and are therefore numbered from the outside in. Although landbirds do not have "true" tertials like some waterfowl or other groups, birders and banders have generally agreed to call the innermost three secondaries (thus S7, S8, S9) the tertials:
I have attempted to number the remiges. I believe that the secondaries are correctly numbered, but am less sure about the primaries. You see there is a gap between what I have numbered P3 and P5. It is possible that P4 is missing due to an accident. It is also possible that what I have labeled as "P5" is actually P4, and, if so, then all the numbers larger than that are off by one. It is also possible that the feather labeled P10 is actually the base of P9, and that P10 is entirely hidden below it. P10 the outermost primary is considerably shorter than adjacent primaries.

For fun, I used the PhotoShop color picker for the colors of the numbers. The P numbers are matched to the color of the edges of the inner primaries. The S numbers are matched to the color of the tertial edges. Recalling the "three panel" system described on the introductory page, you can see that the pattern is "red-white-white" (i.e., rufous edges to primaries, white edges to S1-S4, and white edges to S5-S9).

Note yet something else: the edges of the outer primaries (e.g., P6-P8) look more orange and less deep rufous than the inner primaries (e.g., P1-P3). I think it is fair to attribute this to sun bleaching. Recall this is a May photo so the edges have been subjected to sun for perhaps 8-10 months. When the bird is perched (which is most of the time) only the outer primary edges are in the sun, so they bleach while the inner ones do not. Even with that amount of sun bleaching, the essentially rufous character of the color is still there. As the inner ones did not bleach, the stark contrast between deep rufous on P1 even in an old feather and the white edging to S1, is quite obvious.

Let us now look at the two Nutting's we are using for reference. Below left is the southern California bird in a fine shot © Larry Sansone; to the right is another Ed Harper shot of the Arizona bird.

Enlarging Ed Harper's shot of the wing-panel, I have numbered some (but not all) of the primaries and secondaries. You can fill in the other numbers as you examine the photo. Notice how S1 is rufous-edged, almost as intensely as P1 and the other primaries. S2 is a decidedly paler orange or cinnamon. S3 through S4 or S5 are even paler, essentially yellow-orange. Note the same group of feathers on the southern California bird (above). These are similar except to my eye S3 through S5 look pale yellow, producing the "yellow mid-panel" discussed on the introductory page.

Note one other thing: the gradual paling of rufous to orange to yellow to whitish through the outer and middle secondaries of both birds is uniform. Also, the tips of all secondaries look equally fresh and rounded; none are worn or abraded. This is consistent with adult birds over a year old (i.e., not born the preceding summer).

Undoubtedly the most important paper on the Nutting's vs. Ash-throated problem is Lanyon (1961). He reviewed 485 specimens of Ash-throated, and 229 of Nutting's, all adults in fresh plumage (Sep-Feb) to develop his plumage keys. In my view, this research is much more important than anecdotal evidence reported by some about their experiences with a handful (and sometimes just one or two) birds. As to the wing-panel, Lanyon wrote that Ash-throated "M. cinerascens has the fringed leading edges of the secondaries whiter than those of M nuttingi. In M. cinerascens, the deep rufous edging characteristic of the primaries is never present on the secondaries (the first secondary may be edged with a very pale rufous) and the remaining secondaries and tertials are edged with white or grayish white. In M. nuttingi the deep rufous edging of the primaries is always present on at least the first secondary and then fades to a pale rufous or brownish white on the remaining secondaries only the tertials are white or grayish white" [emphasis added].

There is one very important caveat: "In using this character, one must be careful to recognize those specimens of M. cinerascens that are still in the process of postjuvenal molt, for the secondaries of the juvenal plumage of that species are edged with pale rufous and would be confusingly similar to the condition found in adult M. nuttingi. It is not uncommon to find specimens collected as late as November and December that still retain one or two of the juvenal secondaries.... The character can be used in these specimens, however, for the last secondaries to be replaced are the inner ones (next to the tertials). Consequently, in molting M. cinerascens, those secondaries located adjacent to the primaries will have the white edges typical of adults" (emphasis added).

Having learned how to separate the two species on wing-panel characters if we can correctly age the bird to exclude juvenal outer secondaries let's look at the Santa Cruz bird using a portion of a great Kevin McKereghan digital photo through a fine scope. To the right is that portion of the photo and then the same shot with the remiges numbered:
There are many interesting points here. S1 through S4 have fresh clean edges while S5 (not numbered but just above S4) is obviously worn, and it is a pale rufous or orange color. This is what Pyle (1997) terms "molt limits;" S5 is a worn and retained juvenal feather, and ages this bird as a bird in first-basic plumage, having been born in summer 2002. It was skipped during the molt as the remaining inner secondaries are fresh. Because the juvenal secondaries are replaced from the outside in, S1 through S4 are fresh basic secondaries having the characteristics of adult feathers. I see that S1, the outermost secondary, is very broadly edged rufous, and that the color is almost identical to the deep rufous of the primary edges. S 2 is paler, but still has much orange at its base, and then S3 and S4 are paler still.
Some who have reviewed this photo on Joe Morlan's web site state that the color of the edges of S2 (excluded the orangey base) through S4 is whitish, and thus better for Ash-throated. This is an opinion different from most who studied this feature in the field, often with high-powered scopes. Most of us saw a pale-yellow (called "cream" by some people) color to these edges. So I have also done another test on this last photo. Using the PhotoShop color picker at the half-way point of individual feathers and in the center of the colorful edge, I have filled five boxes with the colors that the computer found there. The left hand box is the color found in the edge of P1, the innermost primary. The next box has the color found mid-way out on S1, the outer secondary. You can judge for yourself whether this color is a deep rufous color similar to the primaries as Lanyon (1961) says is diagnostic of Nutting's or a whitish or, at most, "very pale rufous," which is diagnostic of Ash-throated (now that we know these are not juvenal feathers). The center box is the color of the belly as shown in this photograph. [Incidentally, for fun I also used that color to number the secondaries so you could see how it looked next to the dark color of the rest of the feather.] The box after that is the color of the edge of S3. You can judge for yourself whether that color is similar to the color of the belly. If it is, and you call the belly "yellow," then, a priori, the edge of S3 is also in the "yellow" category. The final box is filled with the color of the edge of S10, the uppermost tertial. This is a color I call "cream" but whatever the exact language, it is clearly in the white to whitish category.

I have four more thoughts for you to consider about the colors of the remige edges:

  1. Some have stated that they expect the secondaries of Nutting's Flycatcher to be rufous (like the primaries) rather than orangey or yellow. This is contrary to Lanyon's study. However, for what its worth, Howell & Webb (1994) state that southern populations of Nutting's are more richly colored on the wing panel and belly than northern populations. The only specimen collected in the U.S. was of the northern subspecies, M. n. inquietus (Dickerman & Phillips 1953). It is possible that those who rely on field experience with the southern nominate race (s. Mexico to Costa Rica) may be comparing apples to oranges (pun intended).
  2. Whether or not you agree that the color of S3 (and most of S2 and S4) is the color of the belly, i.e., in the "yellow" category, it does look less yellow than on the photos of the Arizona and southern California birds, where I "see" actual lemon-yellow without the aid of computerized technology. One possible reason is that, however crisp and wonderful this digital photo may be, is has washed out the yellows. We can tell that because the belly is less yellow than on most of the other photos of this bird and much paler than described in the field. I think it is possible that digital photography may be great for showing fine details with clarity, but may be less accurate in capturing exact colors. I will show another possible example of this on the Plumage page when we compare digital photos both taken with digital cameras held up to scopes of the head colors. McKereghan's set-up (an Olympus 3030 digital camera with a Leica APO 77 scope with 30-60X eyepiece" is different than Tom Grey's set up (an Olympus 550 digital camera with a Nikon Fieldscope 60 ED). I think the Leica gives a "cool" cast to the photos while the Nikon brings a "warm" cast, even accounting for differences in natural lighting (or maybe those differences are inherent in the cameras?). There are some who have conducted an entire review off this single McKereghan photo but, excellent as it is, it may be unwise to limit one's opinion to one photo.
  3. The other thought is derived from Lanyon's (1961) statement about the value of the secondary pattern: "The second character [wing panel] is the most transitory and is of no use in specimens taken after November." Why did he say this? Obviously, it was because the characters were "transitory" or, more directly. subject to fading. You will recall that in studying the Ash-throated Flycatcher (above), we found that the depth of the rufous color of the outermost primaries had faded somewhat by May. Thus when Lanyon speaks of the secondary pattern as "the deep rufous edging of the primaries is always present on at least the first secondary and then fades to a pale rufous or brownish white on the remaining secondaries only the tertials are white or grayish white," we would expect that color to fade as the months after November go by. All the photos on this page (except Ash-throated) are from early January, just a month to six weeks after the end of November. So only partial fading has occurred. I would expect the "pale rufous" to fade to yellow within a couple months, and the "brownish-white" to fade to even a paler whitish color. If this hypothesis is correct, the "yellow mid-panel" that I have discussed so much up to this point is also transitory, and may be only a useful feature from, say, December through February.
  4. Finally, the nice yellow "mid-panel" pattern shown by the Arizona and southern California birds are on birds we have aged as adults. Perhaps first-winter Myiarchus average paler-edged secondaries than adults. It is not unusual for first-year birds to average paler than adults in some features. I am unaware of any literature than addresses this point.
PRIMARY PROJECTION

Although it is not addressed in the literature, it was suggested during the discussions of the Arizona bird that Nutting's had a shorter primary projection (the number of primaries sticking out beyond the longest tertial on a closed wing) than Ash-throated Flycatcher. It was proposed that Nutting's typically shows only 3 primaries so projecting, while Ash-throated has four or more. Pyle (1997) notes that Ash-throated has a more pointed (=longer looking) less rounded wing than Nutting's. On this April photo of an Ash-throated from Morongo Valley (right; © D. Roberson), we can't count the primaries but we can get a bit of the "long-winged" feeling that such a wing shape would present.

Go back to the photo at the top of this page and in your "mind's eye" fold up the wing. S8 is the longest tertial, and I can see that obviously that the tips of four primaries, numbers P5 through P8 on this page (whose numbering may be off by one, as discussed above), would well extend beyond S8 (and any other secondary), and possibly one or two more tips would also stick out. On Larry Sansone's very nice shot of the Orange County bird, it is apparent that only 3 primary tips are projecting. We can't see details of the Arizona bird, but the primary projection is short, and is consistent with the Orange County bird's shape.

On the Santa Cruz bird, using the photo above and folding it up, it looks to me that only three primary tips (numbered 5, 6, and 7 in the photo) would extend beyond the longest tertial (S8). Assuming the numbers are correct, P8 usually the longest primary in many flycatchers is hidden under P7 and must be essentially the same length, with P9 somewhat shorter. This would be a rounded wing and is consistent with Pyle's (1997) details on Nutting's, who explains that P9 is just barely longer than P5 (by 1-3 mm) in Nutting's, but that P9 is quite a bit longer (3-7 mm) than P5 in Ash-throated. If you look at the Ash-throated at the top, and if the numbering is correct, P9 does look a fair bit longer than P5, consistent with a 3-7mm difference. However, since we can't actually see all the outer primaries, these points are conjecture. You may judge what weight to place on them.

The other pages in this project are:

BACK TO NUTTING'S I.D. INTRO PAGE
STRUCTURE
[shape, bill size]
PLUMAGE
[breast & belly patterns]
TAIL PATTERN
[rectrix patterns]
VOCALIZATIONS, MOUTH, ETC
[mouth lining, calls, behavior]
Personal conclusions

LITERATURE CITED:


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