23/11/2005
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An African Chaffinch (or not) in Highland

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The African Chaffinch is a familiar bird to birders visiting North Africa, consisting of the 'spodiogenys group' of Chaffinch, referred to as Maghreb Chaffinches by van den Berg (2005). These comprise two races and are widely regarded as a separate species - African Chaffinch. The two subspecies are africana ('Atlas Chaffinch'), found in Morocco, Algeria and northwest Tunisia and also (perhaps this race) cyrenaica (north-east Libya), whilst spodiogenys ('Tunisian Chaffinch') is found in Tunisia (except northwest) and north-west Libya (van den Berg, BWPi).

It is generally a short-distance migrant, though small groups of africana are recorded in Gibraltar according to BWP, and a recent bird was trapped and photographed there in April 2004 (see Gibraltar rarities panel). There have been several African Chaffinch claims in Britain, and others in northwest Europe. In The Netherlands there have been several individuals that seemed to show the full suite of characteristics of African Chaffinch, and an apparent female was sound-recorded in April 1999. Claims of six individuals in Britain were recently assessed by the BBRC, the results of which were published in a press release on 19th May 2004. All of these showed features reminiscent of male African Chaffinches and markedly different from normal European Chaffinches (F. c. coelebs).

These claims were (one further claim was awaiting assessment):

  • Essex, Fingringhoe: 9-25 April 1994; also present in January 1995
  • Scilly, St Mary's: 12 April 1994.
  • Cumbria, Penrith: 12 February 1998.
  • Cumbria, Kendall: 1-5 March 1998.
  • Shetland, Fair Isle: 15 April to 1 May 1998.
  • Cumbria, Wigton: 27-28 April 1998.

Oreel (2004) listed 15 African Chaffinch reports from six countries by 2003. The birds in Britain shared a tendency to show a green or greenish (rather than a rich warm brown) mantle tones, pale pink underparts and an extensive blue-grey 'hood' (rather than a blue-grey crown and nape contrasting with rich pink 'cheeks'). However, despite their superficial appearance of African Chaffinch, several other features have ensured that they do not 'fit' the requirements for African Chaffinch.

Although there is much geographical variation within the 'spodiogenys group' with respect to colour and size, British claims have been found wanting for several reasons: a tendency to show an extensive grey wash on the breast (not found in African birds); unusually pale and colourless underparts, or underparts in which the pink coloration is either slightly wrong (too orangey) or unusually restricted; pink tones on the ear coverts or malar area (where africana/spodiogenys is normally uniformly blue-grey); and rather dull green or brownish-green mantle tones (cleaner, brighter green in africana/spodiogenys).

Recently Anthony Griffiths was on holiday on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Highland and came across a strikingly plumaged Chaffinch by his holiday accommodation. Anthony takes up the story:

Chaffinch: Argyll (photo: Anthony Griffiths).

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"I started to feed the local Chaffinches in the hope of attracting Bramblings for photographs, as I had seen them locally earlier in the week. On the first day of putting seed out, 20 or so Chaffinches came into feed. A pale Chaffinch-type bird arrived in the middle of the table and aggressively tried to drive other birds within 2 feet away.

Chaffinch: Argyll (photo: Anthony Griffiths).

The bird showed slate grey/blue head that ran down onto the throat, where it slowly diffused into a mottled pale pink breast. The chin and central throat area were creamy in colour. There was a white eye-ring and some black streaking running up from the upper mandible onto the forehead. The mantle was mainly an olive green colour with a faint blue margin in the scapular area; again, there was some mottling of this feature. A large white patch was present in the lesser-covert region creating a clear white shoulder. Other than this the wing pattern appeared very similar to the surrounding nominate-race birds. No views of the rump area were possible. No calls were heard directly from the bird. No ring was present on either leg.

Chaffinch: Argyll (photo: Anthony Griffiths).

The bird was then seen 5-6 times over the next 2 hours on the 26th October until dusk. All views were relatively brief with this bird being the last onto the table and the first off it at the first sign of movement or danger, but when on the table it continued to act very aggressively towards all of the other birds present.

Family commitments meant that I didn't have an opportunity to look for the bird on the following day but it was again present on the 28th October. It only appeared 3 times on this day in 2-3 hours of watching the area; the local Chaffinches and Bramblings were present in good numbers all day. The same feeding attitude was noted as before; it always approached from the floor appearing from dense Rhododendrons whilst many of the other birds waited high in the surrounding Silver Birches before coming into feed.

In conclusion this was a very strikingly different and attractive Chaffinch, which certainly brightened up a very wet day!"

Upon his return Anthony sent the pictures through to the BirdGuides photo gallery, seeking assistance on the identity of the bird in question. Russell Slack of BirdGuides discussed the bird at length with leading identification expert Martin Garner, who in turn discussed the bird with others with an interest in 'African Chaffinches'.

Feedback was mixed, the favoured identification being a hybrid between Chaffinch and African Chaffinch because of the strangely spotted head lacking a solid black area around the bill, the dark brown spots on the underparts, and the brownish colour of the mantle.

So, what of such birds? Three explanations could explain the occurrence of these birds that look so 'authentic' in northwest Europe. Firstly, could these be birds exhibiting atavism, which causes certain individuals to exhibit former characteristics in a species after several generations of absence, thus causing some 'European' Chaffinches to appear very similar to African Chaffinches. A second possibility is that such birds are in fact hybrids based on some pioneers at some point reaching areas where they can breed with 'European' Chaffinches, producing birds which bear unnerving similarity to African Chaffinches; a parallel here perhaps being Paget's Pochards, which are hybrids very close to, but not quite, the genuine thing. Thirdly, of course those that are very close to the genuine article may of course actually be African Chaffinches, perhaps reaching northwest Europe through movement with 'European' Chaffinches from wintering areas where their paths cross. The story is starting to unfold, and there are still pieces left in the jigsaw before the full picture emerges.

The identification of Maghreb Chaffinches was recently covered by van den Berg (2005). Call is a key feature, and unlike European Chaffinches the call of both africana and spodiogenys is a 'chep' (which is uttered by both sexes, of course, allowing separation of females, as in the recent Netherlands record).

In the future, potential African Chaffinch claims are always going to be fraught with difficulty. Such records will require careful attention to detail, to eliminate potential hybrids or birds recalling African Chaffinch. The plumage should be described in detail and a sound-recording of the call obtained, to eliminate the impersonators from the real vagrants.

References

van den Berg, A. 2005. Field identification of Maghreb chaffinches. Dutch Birding 27: 295-301
Oreel, G J. 2004. Origin of presumed African Chaffinch on Maasvlakte in April 2003. Dutch Birding 26: 46-47
Cramp and Simmons. 2004 Birds of the Western Palearctic interactive. Published by BirdGuides, Sheffield.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Martin Garner for some stimulating discussion of this particular bird and on African Chaffinches in general, and to Anthony Griffiths for sending the pictures through to BirdGuides in the first instance and for providing follow-up information thereafter.
Written by: Russell Slack