Interesting Tyrannus flycatcher from western New York

On Sun, 9 Nov. 2003 Gary Chapin discovered a Tyrannus flycatcher hawking insects from the fence running along Chandler Road near Geneseo, New York. In his internet report, he identified the bird as a Western Kingbird citing the white outer feathers which could be seen when the bird landed. A week later, Willie D'Anna saw and digiscoped the Kingbird at this same locality. Later study of his photos raised some questions about the identification of this bird. Is this really a Western Kingbird or something more exotic such as a Couch's Kingbird or a Tropical Kingbird? Similar questions were raised by Jay McGowan upon viewing the photos posted by Matt Victoria <http://www.fickity.com/weki.html >.

In addition, Pat Kocinski has posted two snippets of video showing the bird fan its tail. The clips can be downloaded from this web link.

The relatively heavy bill, limited extent of gray on the breast and green hints on the mantle (apparently more evident in life than in these photos) point away from Western Kingbird. As can be seen below, the tail is in molt and from these images at least, is less helpful than one would hope. The vocalizations Willie heard corresponded to a very loud sharp single-syllabled call. Indeed, Matt Victoria stated in a follow up post that he heard the bird give a distinct "WICK!" call several times. This is consistent with Western or perhaps Couch's but might exclude Tropical altogether. That said, Alan Wormington has commented that the call of Couch's is expected to be much more "burry" with "rrrrip" inflections.

For those of us involved in the ongoing discussion this has proved a most educational exercise and serves as a timely reminder that all flycatchers should be looked at with a critical eye. At this point, the weight of evidence seems to point toward Western Kingbird but we would welcome additional comments on the identification.

Fig. 1. This side profile shows the bill to good effect. Many commentators were struck by how heavy it looks. Can anyone comment on the extent of variation in bill size for Western Kingbird?

Fig. 2. Unfortunately, the spreading wing obscures the tail. Shai Mitra commented "The photo showing the spread wing is frustrating, because one canŐt see much of p10 (outermost). Even so, p6 seems emarginated, and I think what we are seeing on pp7-9 are the (relatively long) narrow portions beyond the (concealed) notches. Adult Western is the only thing that could look like that.".

Fig. 3. Here we see that the tail is in molt. The outer rectrices are faded (brown) and somewhat abraded. The inner feathers are much fresher and partially grown. The center of the feathers appear to be darker and edged white. On the wing, the flight feathers and the coverts seem fresh.

Fig. 4. A very helpful view of the tail. As stated above, the newer central tail feathers are blackish and strongly edged with white. Do Couch's ever show this? Andy Guthrie pointed out that the shape of the rectrices may not be right for Couch's/Tropical. Shai Mitra commented that the shape of the tail feathers, even the retained outer rectricies look truncate, suggesting AHY.

Fig. 5. Front view showing the extent of the gray on the breast.


REFERENCE IMAGES

Fig. 6. This Tropical Kingbird was digiscoped by Willie D'Anna near Erieau in Ontario last year and provides an useful point of reference.

Fig. 7. A Western Kingbird photographed by Andy Guthrie at Jones Beach New York on 16 Nov 2003.

Fig. 8. A Western Kingbird photographed by Andy Guthrie at Jones Beach New York on 16 Nov 2003.

Fig. 9. A Western Kingbird photographed by Andy Guthrie at Jones Beach New York on 16 Nov 2003.


SOME COMMENTS I'VE RECEIVED

The bird looks like a hybrid Scissor-tailed Flycatcher x Western Kingbird (probable) to me.  The tail is shaped like that of a miniature scissortail's. The gray of the breast comes down the center to the upper belly, as does that of a scissortail.  These two species have paired together a number of times west of the Mississippi, and they have produced offspring.  With scissortails nesting regularly in the southeastern US at present, and Western Kingbirds struggling to spread eastward, it would not surprise me to find such a hybrid in the East.

Bruce H. Anderson, Winter Park, Florida


Angus,

Living in s. California, I see thousands of W. Kingbirds and Cassin's Kingbirds, and see a handful of Tropical/Couche's Kingbirds every fall. This bird is without doubt a Tropical/Couche's Kingbird.  Based on what I can determine about the size/shape of the bill, my guess is Tropical Kingbird.

Guy McCaskie, Imperial Beach, California


Angus,

Based on the long wing projection and a long 10th primary, I'd say it was a Western. From the literature, Tropical's look to have a shorter wing point with a shorter outer primary. I believe both adults and first-years can have a complete autumn moult (?), so a bird in wing moult at this time of year could be either age..right


Julian Hough, New Haven, Connecticut


Angus:

The NY kingbird is confusing.  Looking at the Matt Victoria photos, it seemed certain to be a Couch's/Tropical Kingbird...but the other photos and the video seem much less convincing in that respect. More thought and analysis are required....

Will Russell, Tuscon, Arizona


I see this kingbird is still producing great reaction, and no wonder why.

Perhaps the most interesting comment was in the batch forwarded by Angus, the one suggesting a Western X Scissor-tailed hybrid!! I didn't know such a combination existed, BUT - please check this out (it may just be my computer): Remembering the very brief flight shot in the neat video you forwarded, it went through it frame by frame as it jumps at the end of the clip - on one frame there is what appears to be a salmon patch on the underwing!!  As a caution, this may be a combination of my computer and my color perception, but it actually seems pretty clear (unless it is a strange shadow that has badly deceived me). This hybrid might also explain the excessive white edgings on the tail, the unusually pale head, etc. Could this be the answer?


Tom Burke, Rye, New York


I don't think this can be either Western or Cassin's, both of which have entirely dark inner rectrices when fresh (I just looked at a bunch of specimens of both of them). They also have the yellow on the breast not reaching the bend of the wing, and the Western has a somewhat smaller bill. It must be Tropical/Couch's (which do have inner rectrices pale-edged, from our few specimens), but the call is clearly not the typical call of either of these species. Western gives a single call something like the one described for this bird, but I feel certain it's not a Western. Couch's and Cassin's both give burry calls, while Tropical gives a twittering call, but Couch's in fact also has a single kip call that's not unlike the description.

I'm not sure what the comments on the shape of the outer primaries are intended to mean. All North American (perhaps all everywhere) Tyrannus have narrowed outer primary tips when adult. There are subtle differences, but they couldn't be seen on this bird.Indeed it's a puzzling bird (hybrid?), and November seems awfully late for tail molt, if it's still in molt.

Dennis Paulson, Tacoma, Washington


Angus

I had a look at the photos of that kingbird and finally got to see the video. The video had not worked for me yesterday. I e-mailed with Chris Benesh on this bird, and to me it looks like a hybrid Western x Scissor-tailed Kingbird. Chris seemed to agree, I am not sure if he is going to post anything or not. There are several reasons as to why this makes sense, but the tail shape with that extreme graduation is one of them, as well as the really squared off R1.

Alvaro Jaramillo, Alviso, California


Tyler, J.D. 1992. A hybrid Scissor-tailed Flycatcher x Western Kingbird specimen from southwestern Oklahoma. Wilson Bulletin. 104: 178-181. This paper can be accessed electronically via http://elibrary.unm.edu/wilson/

Alex Lees, Norwich, England


Angus:

What an amazing looking bird. Given the tail and bill, I would be astonished if it turned out to be a Western, and Anderson's suggestion of hybridization with a Scissor-tailed makes a lot of sense, especially given that strange tail. However, I agree with others that the bill appears much too large for
a Western, which also makes it too large for a Scissor-tailed. Can two small-billed kingbirds produce large-billed hybrid offspring? I suppose anything is possible, but since we have now entered the realm of wild guesses, why not a Scissor-tailed/Couch's or S-T/Tropical? A northward prospecting TRKI or COKI might hook up with a STFL. (I won't even discuss Fork-tailed.)
Just trying to keep the ball in the air...

David Muth, New Orleans


Hi Angus,
If this bird showed up in SoCal, I'd never take it for a Western. I'm leaning toward Tropical Kingbird here. The immediate problems with Western are
1. The yellow comes up way too far on the breast. The breast of Western Kingbird is mostly gray, becoming yellow much closer to the belly than on the subject bird.
2. The yellow on the breast and belly is way too bright. On Western, the yellow is usually duller, even on fresh birds.
3. The gray on the head is too dark, reducing the contrast with the mask, which should be even darker than on the subject bird.
4. The bill on this bird seems too long and heavy for either Western or Couch's.

Steve Sosensky, California


Photos copyright of Willie D'Anna© 2003 and Andy Guthrie© 2003 All rights reserved. Page layout copyright of Angus Wilson© 2003 All rights reserved.

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