A PHOTO DISCUSSION ON NUTTING'S FLYCATCHER IDENTIFICATION:
Part 3: PLUMAGE
text © 2003 Don Roberson
all photographs are copyrighted © 2003
by the photographers cited; used here with permission


HEAD PATTERNS: Lanyon (1961) provided analysis from over 700 birds of some consistent plumage difference aside from tail and secondary edge patterns that separate specimens of Ash-throated from Nutting's Flycatchers. Two of these features involve the head and neck pattern. On Ash-throated, the "gray of the throat ... extends dorsally as a prominent nuchal band, thus creating an area of contrast between the browner crown and back" and "auriculars, forehead, and lores conspicuously gray." In contrast, he states that in Nutting's "there is no prominent nuchal band" and the "auriculars, forehead, and lores.... are brown." These same points are repeated by Dittmann & Cardiff (2000) and Cardiff & Dittmann (2002). Yet I have comments of some who consider these points "worthless." Lanyon (1961) does caution that the characters are useful "from December through February and are useless thereafter." This is because wear changes and fades colors and contrasts. However, the Santa Cruz bird we are discussing is a January individual of known age (first winter) and therefore it seems prudent to consider these points.

Some have used Kevin McKereghan's fine digiscope photos, like the one immediately right, to conclude that the Santa Cruz bird had "gray" auriculars, lores, and nape. The cheek and lore and side of neck color do look a bit grayer than the brown crown, but the same can be said for the Orange Co. Nutting's (far right © Larry Sansone).
Further, as discussed several times already, reliance on any one photo no matter how crisp for purposes of color evaluation is unwise. Tom Grey's digiscoped photos of the Santa Cruz bird (near left) show brown cheeks, lore, and sides of neck. My own photo (far right) shows the auriculars to be concolor with the crown and nape.
It is possible, indeed probable, that the focus should not be so much on gray versus brown but, rather on issues of contrast between the auricular areas and the gray throat and breast.
On Ash-throated Flycatcher (both photos, right, © J.V. Remsen & © D. Roberson) has very little contrast between the cheeck/auriculars and the gray throat and breast (arrows on near right shot). The April bird had far right not only shows the lack of contrast between cheek and throat, but shows extensive gray around the eye and through the lores.
On Nutting's Flycatcher, illustrated near right by the Orange Co. bird (©D. Roberson), there is much more contrast between the cheek/auriculars and throat. The far right photo (©D. Roberson) is a well-lit photo (without flash) with some of these areas shown by arrows. You can determine whether you think there is much contrast or not. Or you may conclude that photographic evidence is unreliable on this point, and turn, instead to field descriptions. All of those I have reviewed say that the bird had brown auriculars and a gray throat.
There is also the question of the gray nuchal band mentioned by Lanyon (1961). Ash-throated is said to have one while it is lacking in Nutting's. Again, photos can be very poor for judging this. On the photo (near right) of the Nutting's in Orange County (© Dan Lockshaw), a nuchal band seems obvious. Someone relying on this shot would conclude that bird was an Ash-throated. Other shots, like my own directly above, show the nape was brown. The nape was also brown on the Santa Cruz bird (far right, this row). That shot was taken just moments after the one directly above it, and illustrates how the angle of the head affects this character in photos.

BELLY & BREAST: Lanyon (1961) says that Ash-throated "is noticeably paler below. This is most evident at the junction of the gray chest and yellow abdomen, at which point M. cinerascens has an extremely pale, frequently white area separating the gray from the yellow. In M. nuttingi, the yellow borders directly on the gray chest, rendering a more contrasty sequence of colors."

Of all the points discussed on these pages, I find this one the most subject to photographic variability. Whether the bird was in the shade or the sun, and whether the photograph is over-or-under exposed, directly affects these critical areas. For example, the photo of the Santa Cruz bird (far right, two rows above) is in the sun and is over-exposed by at least a half-stop. While it may show contrasts between colors, it can't show the real density of colors. You can surf through the photos throughout these pages and find examples of both over-exposed and under-exposed birds, and it looks to me that most digiscoped photos are particularly "off" on these characters, taking the "warm" or "cool" characteristics of the scope involved. Photos in the sun (and that is most of them!) will inevitably show the belly paler than in real life. Shade photos may be best for this character.

What I can say, though, is that often the field impression of the Santa Cruz bird was of a quite yellow-bellied bird. I think this was one of the reasons it was initially identified as a possible Dusky-capped, and why "Ash-throated" was not initially much of a concern for some of the initial observers.

UPPERTAIL COVERTS: I'm not sure what it means, but the uppertail coverts were edged rusty on the Santa Cruz bird, and this feature was apparent in the field. This might be age-related, but on the other hand, the uppertail coverts of both the southern California and Arizona birds (presumably adults) were also described as edged with rusty color. The uppertail coverts on Ash-throated Flycatcher are described as "tinged rufous" in basic plumage (Cardiff & Dittmann 2002) but I haven't seen this in the field. In comments on the Arizona bird in 1996, Kimball Garrett discussed his review of specimens at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and, with the caveat that most Nutting's there were taken in late winter while most Ash-throateds were collected in spring and early summer, noted that the Nutting's had "rather rich brown (almost rusty-tinged) uppertail coverts" while the Ash-throats had a "colder brown (almost gray-brown)" color. It is possible that the rusty-colored uppertail coverts of the Santa Cruz are important.

Other pages in this project are:

BACK TO NUTTING'S I.D. INTRO PAGE
STRUCTURE
[shape, bill size]
WING PATTERN
[secondary edges, primary projection]
TAIL PATTERN
[rectrix patterns]
VOCALIZATIONS, MOUTH, ETC
[mouth lining, calls, behavior]
Personal conclusions

LITERATURE CITED:


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