Finding a first, whether it’s for the local patch or the country, is a magical feeling. Last Friday Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra, found a small female flycatcher in the grounds of Tsinghua University, Beijing. After recording the call, taking extensive notes and managing to grab a couple of photographs, it was identified as Beijing’s first SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER! A brilliant find. Here’s Ben’s story:
“On Friday 11 September 2015 I took what was supposed to be a brief stroll after lunch on the Tsinghua University Campus. Although there were not particularly many birds around, I had a good start with short but reasonable views of a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus tenellipes) foraging on the ground in ‘patch 2’. As ‘patch 3’ (next to my office) was not very birdy I decided to give ‘patch 7’ a try.
Not much appeared to be going on here as well, until I heard a call unfamiliar to me (which is in itself not exceptional, given my limited experience with the many (potential) Tsinghua species). The call stood out (I was still about 30 meters away) and was persistent. It was clear that it belonged to a chat-like bird given the high-pitched, ventriloquist ‘sjeee’ notes similar to e.g. Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros. These notes were followed by a series of harsh ‘tek’ sounds. The call came from a small patch of bamboo. I first took a quick recording and then started pishing to coax the bird into view.
The bird obliged and although it was quite ‘busy’ and mostly stayed hidden in the vegetation I managed to get my first views almost directly.
I had the interesting experience of having no clue what I was looking at. I did not bring my field guide and had no clear idea which species could potentially be encountered in Beijing. The bird had no obvious identifying features except that the colour was strikingly rufous and it appeared quite long tailed. It was soon clear that I was dealing with a small Ficedula flycatcher. The bird was notably smaller and more delicate than the Taiga Flycatchers F. albicilla, regular at Tsinghua this period. Size, colour and plainness also directly excluded the other migrant Ficedulas: Yellow-rumped F. zanthopygia, Chinese F. elisae and Mugimaki F. mugimaki (in the city, the latter two are rare and very rare respectively). I knew that Slaty-backed Flycatcher F. hodgsonii was on the Beijing list but I had no idea about its status except that it must be a very good record in the lowlands. At least I knew that females are drab so I tentatively pinned this ID on the bird. Although I got momentarily side-tracked by a cracking male Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope foraging in the same bamboo patch, I managed to get some decent views of the flycatcher. The bird was clearly not going anywhere so I decided to go back to the office (just a few minutes away) and check pictures and sound recordings on the internet to see if I could figure out what it was by myself.
Browsing Oriental Bird Images for Slaty-backed Flycatcher female/juvenile did not provide an obvious match (with birds showing an obvious pale wing bar). However, with Google I found some pictures that got pretty close. The calls available on Xeno-Canto did not match however. As I did not manage to reach a confident ID I called Terry Townshend. He confirmed that Slaty-backed is rare in Beijing (with only two records from the mountains, where it actually might breed). He suggested that another mega, female Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina, might show rufous tones, but no, that wasn’t it. This bird was too small. I pulled my sound recordings from my recording device and sent them to Terry and Paul Holt. I could not reach Paul by phone. I put the news out on the Birding Beijing WeChat group that I had a weird flycatcher that ‘must be Slaty-backed’. I also sent a message with more specific information to two Tsinghua University birders with whom I got in contact via the WeChat group: Huang Hanchen and Zhao Xiangyu.
Considering the obvious rarity of the mystery flycatcher I decided to give up on work for the day and head back to ‘patch 7’. When I reached the spot again the bird was still present (easily located based on call). The bird mostly sneaked around and could ‘disappear’ in the bamboo for quite some time (when it was silent). Terry suggested me to try and get a couple of photos. Although I am not a photographer (at all!), luckily I did carry a simple camera. Photographing a hyperactive little brown job fluttering around in dense undergrowth with a simple camera is not easy. Several times I managed to get a good view of the bird though. Only around 17:30 o’clock the bird took a brief excursion outside of the bamboo and sat in some (relatively) open vegetation, low in the crowns of some small trees. Here I finally managed to take a picture.
Soon after Hanchen and later Xiangyu arrived (I had no internet on my phone so did not know whether they would manage to come and help). Although I had lost the bird we soon heard it calling from the bamboo again. We got some good views again. Hanchen and Xiangyu agreed that this was something weird, it was not just me! Hanchen managed to take some pictures of the bird with a better camera, but because the bird was obscured they were not so sharp.
Around 18:00 the bird left the bamboo again and this time we lost it a while longer. We heard it calling from close-by in the park and, while we got distracted by a Thick-billed Warbler, the bird managed to slip into the bamboo again unseen. It was slowly getting dark so we decided the leave the bird be, hoping that it would still be there tomorrow.
Back in the office I could check my email and saw that Paul replied. The only quick message at that stage was that he was not sure of the ID yet and would get back to me. He did mention Slaty-blue Flycatcher F. tricolor as confusion species though. This was a species that I did not consider at all at this point. I searched Oriental Bird Images and BANG!, that was the bird! Next up was Xeno-Canto and BANG! again, that was the bird! Not only was it nice to finally ID the bird properly, Slaty-blue Flycatcher was an entirely new bird for Beijing! As Terry said, this species was not on the radar! It breeds a long way away from Beijing, with the closest subspecies diversa breeding in central China and wintering in south China and further south. Paul did manage to dig up two spring records from the coast, from Beidahe (9-12 May 1996) and from Happy Island (20 May 2003), so these flycatchers do get lost sometimes. Next morning several Tsinghua birders came to try and twitch the bird. Although this provided a nice opportunity to meet some people, unfortunately the bird itself was nowhere to be found.
The following description is based on what I saw in the field. I managed to take a single picture and Hanchen also got a few.
Size and Structure
A small flycatcher, smaller and more delicate than Taiga Flycatcher Ficedula albicilla. Small and fine bill. Long-tailed. Short primary projection (roundish wings).
Quite a featureless bird. Open face with pale eye ring and lores. Light, buffy throat (reminiscent of a young Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus). Rufous tone on upperparts, especially rump/tail. Rufous wingbar (edge of secondaries). Underparts lighter, more buffy than upperparts.
Legs flesh-coloured. Bill black. Eyes dark.
I have no idea how to age Slaty-blue Flycatcher. Perhaps a first year male would already have hints of blue in the plumage? The wingbar was (although only when I could see the bird well) pronounced (broad), perhaps this indicates a first year bird? The overall rich tones might suggest a young bird as well? I doubt there is any literature out there.
I have no literature at hand and do not know how many subspecies are recognized and how they are distributed. I base the following on Oriental Bird Images. Male plumages of the different subspecies look quite different (tricolor/minuta vs. diversa/cerviniventris). Time for a split? It seems to me that female-type birds also show differences. Subspecies tricolor and minuta seems colder and darker and the legs seem also darker. I don’t know how consistent this is. The warm/buffy appearance of the Tsinghua birds fits pictures of ssp. diversa, which is probably the most likely taxon to end up here anyway.
The bird generally stuck to a patch of bamboo. It mostly foraged low down (< 1m) and I even saw it hopping on the ground like a robin. It displayed the typical flycatcher behaviour of sitting still and dive-bombing unfortunate insects. In the dense undergrowth that made quite some noise. In the late afternoon, around 17:30 and 18:00 o’clock it moved out out of the bamboo and foraged a bit higher up (c. 2,5 m) in the lower crown of small trees, but both times it quickly returned to the bamboo. The bird could be coaxed out and enticed to call by pishing, but seemed to loose interest soon. When it was outside of the bamboo it perched on bare branches and was not particularly shy, it just didn’t seem to stay in the same place for long. The bird was tail-pumping but did this slowly. Once the birds came to check me out and sat at a height of about 2 m while preening.
The sound that initially attracted me to the bird was a number of typical chat ‘sjeee’ sounds followed by a series of ‘tek’ notes. In response to my pishing the bird called excitedly, but only made the ‘tek’ notes, not the ‘sjwee’ notes. The bird sometimes made a single or only several ‘tek’ notes. I made a couple of recordings which manage to capture the variation of the sounds produced.”
Thanks to Huang Hanchen for the kind permission to use his photograph of the Slaty-blue Flycatcher.