Three pratincole species, Collared, Black-winged and Oriental, have been recorded in Britain, but the last has not yet been seen in Ireland. They all share a remarkable swallow-like appearance, with forked tails, pointed wings and agile aerial foraging, sometimes also recalling a distant small tern. However, subtle differences between them can, with perseverance, in most cases enable identification to be made with some certainty. Tony Prater has all the information you need to separate these similar species in the field.
Adult breeding Collared Pratincole (Toledo, Spain, 21 July 2014). The Collared Pratincole illustrated here shows the typical appearance of all three species, with a short, stocky bill with decurved culmen, neat throat bib in summer plumage and elongated appearance. The easiest diagnostic character of Collared is that the outer tail feathers extend beyond the primary tips – shown well by this individual (Carlos Bocos).
This is by far the most widespread of the three species, with isolated populations breeding from Central Asia west to Iberia which are of the nominate and highly migratory form. Two further subspecies occur in Africa: erlangeri, in Somalia and Kenya, and fuelleborni, in the rest of Africa south to South Africa. The two African taxa are both nomadic, but are not known in Europe. However, birds are worth checking if they appear rather smaller, darker than expected and the underwing is less red.
As this is the only western European breeding pratincole, it is not surprising that it is the most frequently seen here. It is still rare and only 76 have been recorded in Britain up to 2017. Like many other southern and eastern European birds it is typified by overshooting individuals in spring and is most frequently reported in May and June – so definitely one to look for now.
While Collared Pratincole is essentially aerial, it frequently lands on dry mud or very short saline vegetation, the typical breeding habitat. When feeding on the ground it can look remarkably like a horizontal Northern Wheatear in chasing invertebrates. More often it is mixed in with hirundines, flying quite high with the chattering tern-like calls indicating its presence. The call is slightly higher in pitch than Black-winged and a little longer, but it is not easy to tell on vocalisation.
In adult plumage the combination of long tail streamers, a bright white outer primary feather shaft, strong red underwing contrasting with darker secondaries and a white or pale trailing edge to the secondaries are diagnostic, though the white trailing edge can be abraded and is less obvious by autumn or early winter, or against a bright sky. Underwing colour can sometimes be deceptive as when in deep shadow, the red can look almost black.
Breeding from the Ukraine to the steppes of Central Asia in Kazakhstan, this is less frequently seen in Britain and Ireland than Collared. Only 37 have been reported in total, despite it being a highly migratory species. Although few individuals occur, they can tour several locations, with one notable bird in 2014 being seen at eight different sites in eastern England from Sussex to Northumberland between 12 June and 9 August. Unlike Collared, the bulk of the records are later in the year, with most between July and the end of August.
The majority of the population winters in southern Africa, often in huge flocks, when feeding conditions are right; once some 800,000 birds were estimated in a single flock. A few winter in mid-west Africa.
Birds gather after breeding and leave their steppe nesting areas from late July. They tend to arrive in South Africa late in the autumn, with most not occurring until November, after moving through Central Africa.
Adults are noticeably darker than Collared, though the difference can be subtle. The critical feature on the ground is the length of the outer tail feathers which nearly always fall well short of the primary tips. Other more variable features include more extensive black on the lores and the red base of the lower mandible rarely reaching the nostril.
In flight the black underwing coverts and axillaries stand out and are diagnostic. On the upperwing the secondary coverts, especially the outer ones, do not contrast strongly with the dark primaries and the dark secondaries do not have white or even pale tips. All features emphasise the darkness of the species.
The legs are slightly longer than those of the other two species and it often stands slightly higher. The chattering tern-like flight call is subtly different from Collared, with Black-winged Pratincole having a short, penetrative trill.
With a breeding range from Mongolia to Pakistan and wintering from India to Australia, it is not surprising that this is the least frequently encountered pratincole in Britain. It has yet to be reported in Ireland. Just seven birds have been recorded since the first in 1981.
In many respects it resembles Black-winged Pratincole, having no pale trailing edge to the secondaries and darkish upperwing coverts which often contrast only a little with the primary coverts. Unlike both Black-winged and Collared the shaft of the outer primary is dull brownish when viewed from above, though whiter underneath. However, it shows a red underwing and the tail streamers are even shorter, with the tips only reaching halfway between the tertial and primary tips, sometimes only as far as the tertial tips.
In other pratincoles the upper breast tends to be a rather dull greyish brown and lower breast whitish, but in Oriental the lower breast is tinged with orange-buff. The red on the base of the lower mandible maybe even less and sometimes it is possible to see that the nostril is more oval than slit-like as in the other two species. The call tends to be a medium, relatively high-pitched trill.
Adult breeding Collared Pratincole (Kalloni Salt Pans, Lesvos, 2 May 2007). This individual shows how the tail streamers can fall equal to the primary tips (while the introductory photograph shows the maximum length). They are longer than those of the other two species. The fairly extensive red on both mandibles can be seen to extend to at least halfway along the slit-like nostril. Other supportive features here are that the dark lores do not extend above nor behind the eye and the breast shows very little warm buff. Collared tends to look a little slimmer and less bulky than Black-winged (Oliver Smart).
Adult breeding Black-winged Pratincole (Mayshukur, Kazakhstan, 8 May 2013). In this individual the tail-tip just extends past p9 but is still well short of the tip of p10. As the extremes just overlap, it is important to look at all features. The extensive black lores extend to just above the eye and a small area of blackish can be seen just behind the eye. Also, the red on the lower mandible does not reach the nostril which, although relatively large, is still not quite oval. The lack of warmth on the breast and the rather bulky shape are further useful features of Black-winged (Arend Wassink / www.agami.nl).
Adult breeding Oriental Pratincole (Petchaburi, Thailand, 24 April 2011). This species has the shortest tail streamers of the three; the outer tail feather can just be seen falling between p7 and p8, but care needs to be taken in assessing relative length as the outermost (10th) primary is old and very worn compared with the other primaries. Often they lie closer to the tertial tips. The darkish upperparts recall Black-winged and the dark lores are also quite extensive though less than in Black-winged. Many have limited red on the base of the lower mandible, but this individual has quite extensive coloration (Helge Sorensen / www.agami.nl).
Adult non-breeding Collared Pratincole (Salalah, Oman, 27 October 2007). In winter the neat black line around the throat and the creamy throat patch itself are absent, with the former sometimes just visible as separated brownish streaks. This is true for Black-winged as well. The upperparts are a dull olive-brown, but as in breeding plumage, it is slightly paler than Black-winged. The red on the bill base becomes duller, but usually the pattern remains discernible. On this bird the nostril is clearly elongated. The bird also is relatively slim in appearance (Daniele Occhiato / www.agami.nl).
Adult non-breeding Black-winged Pratincole (Salalah, Oman, 27 October 2007). In this plumage Black-winged can often be very difficult to tell from Collared, but the photograph shows well the rather chunky appearance of the former, and the red on the bill base is even more dull and sometimes, as here, the bill appears black. In all pratincoles the tail streamer length tends to be slightly shorter in non-breeding plumage, but the intermediate length of Black-winged is usually visible (though not here). The darkish brown upperwing coverts maintain the overall darker appearance (Daniele Occhiato / www.agami.nl).
Adult non-breeding Oriental Pratincole (Perak, Malaysia, 27 November 2014). The breeding plumage throat pattern of Oriental is usually partly retained in non-breeding plumage, and the overall colour of the head is more washed brown than the other two pratincoles. While the salmon colour on the underparts is mostly lost, it is replaced by a dull olive wash which is more extensive than in the other two species. The red of the bill base is also clearly duller, and in some birds, but not this one, the nostril shape can be helpful (Amar Singh).
Juvenile Collared Pratincole (El Gouna, Egypt 2 September 2009). This is pretty much the standard juvenile plumage of all three species, though there is often more dark brown subterminal covert fringes than in this individual. Given the similarities, one has to concentrate on structural features. This individual shows that the tail-tips are equal to the primary tips, that there is quite an extensive dull red on the bill base and a slit-like nostril. In flight the red underwing may be sullied with dark feathers, but the trailing edge of the wing is whitish (Edwin Winkel / www.agami.nl).
Juvenile/first-winter Black-winged Pratincole (Rubirizi, Uganda, 4 October 2016). The juvenile brown plumage is retained on the head for the longest, giving quite a striking head and throat pattern. The tail-tips fall short of p9 tip so are shorter than in Collared. Although a small area of red is shown at the bill base it is limited. In flight the underwing coverts are already black at this age, but there maybe a very inconspicuous buffish trailing edge to the wing (Alan Tate).
Juvenile/first-winter Oriental Pratincole (Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, 6 September 2011). The brown subterminal fringes on the lower scapulars and wing coverts are more extensive here than in the other two species, but its head pattern resembles Black-winged. The red on the bill base is variable: this bird has quite an extensive amount, but sometimes the bill is all dark. The tail-tips can be seen to fall just short of p7 so the short tail remains distinctive. The underwing resembles Collared in that it often has dark feathers (Alex Vargas / www.agami.nl).
Adult Collared Pratincole (Sohar, Oman, 23 February 2013). Given a favourable light on the underwing, the beautiful orange-red underwing coverts and axillaries stand out. Oriental has a similar coloration, but its greater secondary underwing coverts are often paler. The pale trailing edge to the secondaries makes these appear fainter than in Oriental and a distinctive light notch where the primaries and secondaries meet is not shown by the other species. This bird also shows the long line extending from the gape; although variable, this feature is not shown by the other species (Rene Pop / The Sound Approach).
Adult Black-winged Pratincole (Atyrau, Kazakhstan, 5 June 2017). The smooth jet black of the underwing coverts and axillaries with not the slightest hint of a pale trailing edge to the secondaries make this unmistakable. The white shaft of the outer primary shows clearly, but this is also present in Collared. The darker upperwing is also shown by this bird, as is the large area of black on the lores which just creeps over the eye. Note also that it lacks a thin gape line (Dominic Mitchell).
Adult Oriental Pratincole (Petchaburi, Thailand, 12 February 2012). The orange-red underwing coverts are similar to those of Collared, but the secondaries form a conspicuous dark trailing edge to the wing, which lacks both the white trailing edge and outer secondary pale notch typical of Collared. Although the outer primary is whitish at its base from below, above it is dull with a brownish wash. The very short tail streamers make this a more dumpy bird in flight than the other two species (Bob Steele / BIA).
- This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of Birdwatch magazine.