“You should do something with your Coal tits”
– Björn Malmhagen
The first flock of Coal tits we saw in Galicia was in the very first minute of birding, even before parking the car. It was in Punta Nariga, a typical Galician cape with its lighthouse and its endless gorse extensions. There are mainly 3 species breeding in this kind of habitat: Stonechat, Winter wren and Dunnock, so when we spotted a flock of Coal tits coming in from the sea, flying over us and hesitating about where to land, we all knew they were migrants.
Migrant Coal tit is not a strange concept for me: we had a pretty good season last autumn in Falsterbo, but it’s the kind of thing that here, in the Iberian Peninsula, can be hard to notice. We always have Coal tits (it’s common even in Barcelona streets), so, in a normal year, you really need to go to a place where only migrants are found. Indeed, a lighthouse.
The main purpose of the trip was to check some areas in the Costa da Morte and Fisterra regions that have proven to be good for rarities. The dates were perfect and the weather forecast seemed so in the beginning. No way, not in Galicia. After having seen this flock of tits, it got cloudy and rainy and the clouds didn’t went away until it got windy. However, with the wind they came more Coal tits, this time in the exciting Mar de Fora little forest, a Ouessant-like forest placed in the very western end of the Iberian Peninsula.
We had set up some nets targeting Siberia, but we ended up catching Coal tits. Not a bad thing, since they showed obvious differences with the ones we are used to and especially with the ones I’ve been handling in my last 2 autumns in Falsterbo (like the one in the bottom below).
The upperparts were greener, lacking any hint of bluish tones, and the inner median coverts showed an orangey tip creating a more saturated wing bar impression in comparison with the all-white wing bar present in NE Iberia Coal tits. The photo below shows colour variation in the upperparts of the Coal tits we caught.
All in all, especially keeping in mind we were in Galicia and they were coming from the sea, we thought we were catching britannica Coal tits, but a proper look at the subject revealed the actual importance of a feature we had assumed it was typical of this subspecies: the yellow wash on cheeks and nape patch.
The extension of the yellow in the face was variable, with some birds showing a highly saturated yellow area in the lower cheeks contrasting with a pure white upper area and some others lacking any yellow. The most extreme bird showed almost completely yellow cheeks, somewhat reminding the Algerian leudoci.
After a quick chat with Stephen, who claimed had never ringed a bird like that in the UK, and after having checked the literature, we realised we had been catching some hibernicus, the funny Irish race. It sort of makes sense. If you are a Coal tit migrating south from Great Britain, the first piece of land you hit is the French coasts of Bretagne and Normandy. However, drawing a straight line south of Ireland, you reach Galicia.
Seemingly, a deeper bill it’s also typical hibernicus (what about britannica?). Here you are a comparison side by side of a bird caught in Galicia (left) and a bird from Falsterbo (right). Despite the slightly different position of the head, it’s possible to see a different bill shape, with the presumed hibernicus showing a more curved culmen which gives it a Great tit impression. In the other hand, Falsterbo’s presumed nominate shows the pointed bill I picture when I think about the bill of a Coal tit.
Dickinson and Milne 2008, on their paper about the authorship of this subspecies, reproduced the letter Ogilvie-Grant published in the Daily Mail in December 1910.
I wholly share Mr. Collingwood Ingram impression of a very distinct form, but I don’t agree with HBW when describing the movements as “In British Is moves short distances, with very few recoveries at more than 20 km (most less than half this distance)”. The birds we caught had travelled over 900 km presenting yet another evidence of how almost all bird species are potential migrants.
Dickinson, E., Milne, P.: The authorship of Parus ater hibernicus. Bull. B.O.C. 2008 128(4)
Gosler, A. & Clement, P. (2007). Coal Tit (Periparus ater). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona