Thursday, 24 September 2015

It does not get better than this! 22nd September 2015

Acadian Flycatcher c Steve Nuttall
In 'fast lane birding' it does not often happen that everything coincides to bring about a beneficial outcome but today it certainly did. Allow me to take you back to the previous evening when Peter sent me a text asking if I would like to accompany him to Essex on Tuesday to see a Wilson's Phalarope, a rare wader from North America. After some thought I replied in the affirmative and we agreed to meet at his home in Garsington, near Oxford just after nine on Tuesday morning.

Tuesday morning duly arrived and was depressingly wet, grey and looking singularly unpromising, and frankly my enthusiasm for heading to distant Essex was fading fast, but after a quick phone call I arranged to meet Peter at the later time of ten thirty in the hope the rain would have passed by then. 

I completed the drive to Peter's home in a relaxed state of mind, stopping at Rectory Farm Shop in Beckley to buy the last of the autumn fruit before they closed for the winter. Then it was down to nearby Wheatley to fill up with fuel for the journey to Essex, managing to avoid no less than two police speed traps en route. Have they nothing better to do? 

I parked outside Peter's home at just after ten and went to knock on his door but just as I was walking to his door my phone rang. It was not the usual call involving work matters but a call from Chris, a Sussex birding colleague. 'Hi Chris, how's it going?'  'Good thanks. Where are you?' he enquired.  I could detect an excited tone in his voice. 'Oxford, just setting out for Essex to see a Wilson's Phalarope.' 'Forget that. Get down to Dungeness as soon as you can, there is a first for Britain'. 'There is? What is it?' I anxiously enquired.  'Don't know, nor does anyone else. It's one of those Empidonax flycatchers from the USA but no one can specifically identify it!' 'Are you going for it Chris?' 'Not straight away. I can't get away from work until this afternoon but will get there as soon as I can.' 'OK. Good luck, maybe we will see you there.'  And with that we parted.

Empidonax flycatchers are a group of nondescript flycatchers from the USA that are notoriously hard to separate as they all look so similar and the  jury was obviously out on the bird at Dungeness. I have seen one species of Empidonax flycatcher in the UK and that was an Alder Flycatcher in the Nanjizal Valley, near  Land's End, Cornwall  in October 2008, coincidentally in the company of Chris. 

This particular individual was thought to have been caught up in a fast moving Atlantic weather system and blown across the Atlantic to find landfall at a bleak, wet and windy Dungeness on the Kent coast. Not quite the ideal substitute for its normal winter home in South America and The Carribean.

With the news from Chris my relaxed frame of mind dissolved in an instant and any ideas of going to Essex to see a bird that I had seen on multiple occasions before in Britain were unceremoniously consigned to oblivion. The adrenalin was flowing fast and free as I knocked on Peter's door in some excitement. The door opened and before he could say a word I blurted, 'Forget the Wilson's Pete we are going to 'Dunge' to see a potential first for the UK'. 'We are?'  'Yes we most certainly are. Now get a move on dear boy there is no time to waste. The Black Audi awaits'.

A few minutes later I was enlightening Peter about the events that were at this very moment occuring in far off Kent as we threaded our way down rainswept Oxfordshire country roads to turn onto an M40 Motorway that was so wet in the pouring rain you could barely see the fast moving cars and lorries ahead as they chucked out huge volumes of water. Visibility diminished alarmingly. Of all days why had this one to be so wet when we needed to get to Dungeness as soon as possible? Like many other drivers I decided that the maelstrom of spray from all the vehicles made ordinary rear lights inadequate so put on my rear fog lights just in case anyone had a mind to drive into the back of us and the wipers were engaged at double speed to cope with the mini tsunami hitting the windscreen.

We headed southeast and conditions got no better. So much for the rain passing. Rain, rain and yet more rain hit us in varying volumes and strength. I was concentrating hard whilst driving at as fast a speed as safely possible in the horrible conditions. Peter indulged in playful banter 'So this is what twitching is all about.' 'Yes Peter, now how about getting a post code from Andy and sorting out the Satnav?' Both Chris and Andy were sending regular texts to us as we progressed. Chris updating us on the varying opinions of just what species the flycatcher was whilst Andy got us our post code and also updated us about the flycatcher's identity and the fact that sensational close up pictures of it were already on the internet. I gave Peter a brief tutorial on how to use my I-phone to keep in touch with Andy and also to get updates from my RBA app on the status of the flycatcher and specific directions as to where exactly it was at Dungeness. 

We were all set and now all that needed to be done was to get there as quickly as possible in the foul conditions.The Satnav estimated around one o' clock in the afternoon. Two and a half hours driving.

I excitedly regaled Peter that this is the ultimate in twitching, the buzz, the risk, the anticipation, the sheer unadulterated thrill of adventure and the possibility of seeing a rare and desirable bird was ours for the taking with, of course the added spice that it was by no means certain we would see it. We were making a long haul speculative dash to see a bird that was not just rare but ultra rare, a first for Britain. It does not get better than this believe me. I had come to life in a way that was startling and possibly disconcerting to Peter. I tried to keep calm and controlled but sheer energy and exuberance sometimes got the better of me. Peter remained sanguine and counteracted my wild excursions into over excitement with dry humour. You could say our very different personalities cancelled the excesses on both our parts.  

We hurtled onward in the incessant rain, leaving the M40 and joining the living nightmare of the M25, negotiating the customary four lane semi gridlock of cars around Heathrow and then busied our way down the three lane concrete highway of hell towards Kent. We swept down the long hill past Reigate and then later traversed the M20 as Maidstone came and went in clouds of spray, blurring white and red car lights and continuous rain. The wheels hummed and the wipers beat a continued tattoo as the rain splattered on the windscreen but we had a clear run. At last, near Ashford we turned off the Motorway and took to  smaller, less busy roads leading us towards our ultimate destination. We crossed the bleak, rain sodden fields of Romney Marsh, turned left at Lydd and drove down the long straight road to Dungeness, The ramshackle profiles of a line of houses on the seashore skyline indicated we had reached the end of land and crossing the narrow gauge railroad of the ninety year old, world famous Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, we followed the narrow metalled road across Dungeness Point, one of Europe's largest expanses of shingle, with its random miscellany of forlorn shed like homes, two lighthouses, discarded machinery, small boats drawn up on the shingle by the sea and general air of neglect.

It had almost stopped raining.

The atmosphere of abandonment and wildness at Dungeness is unique despite the looming monumental presence of the huge nuclear reactor and power station. The scattered wooden dwellings, the acres of bare shingle and gorse, the huge skies and ever present sense of the sea nearby, contribute to an almost other worldly feel to the place, enhanced in no little way by the unique narrow gauge railway with its ancient steam engines and quaint wooden carriages that runs across it.

We could plainly see the cars of many birders parked along the side of the road and nearby a phalanx of birders standing on the shingle in a respectful semi circle of subdued clothing, eyeing 'Southview' a white, shack like wooden bungalow surrounded on one side by a garden full of dense shrubs and small trees.

Some of the Twitchers
Southview showing the bushes and water butt on the left side of picture and the
looming bulk of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station in the distance
I hit the express button and was out of the car and ready to go and join my fellow birders in seconds. Peter went into slow goods mode, changing his footwear and seeming to take an age but eventually we got together and headed down the road to join a throng of about one hundred birders.

The flycatcher had originally been found near the shoreline amongst the beached fishing boats, perching on the pebbles and the odd piece of sea bleached wood to hunt insects but as we had been heading south it had relocated to the more suitable habitat of the 'wild garden' around Southview and this is where it was currently seeking sanctuary.

We joined the ranks of those that wait to admire and a gentle enquiry of a fellow birder elicited the fact that the flycatcher had been in plain view just before we arrived but had disappeared into the cover of the bushes. We waited and in very little time, possibly ten minutes, it flicked up from ground level to perch on the top of a water butt by the side wall of Southview.

Our first sight of the Acadian Flycatcher on the water butt  c Peter Law
It was as sensational to see it as its rarity had promised.The sheer relief of seeing it after the long tense drive swept through me with a warm glow and I relaxed. The tension dissipated and now all we had to do was look and wonder and enjoy this waif from  far off North America.

Acadian Flycatcher c Steve Nuttall
There is nothing that looks quite like it in our native avifauna. A robin sized flycatcher with a noticeable green head and upperpart plumage and pale buff underparts, two very obvious creamy white wing bars and pale fringed inner flight feathers creating a stripey appearance . It was chunky in build with a stout, broad based bill and an obvious peaked crown. It behaved as all flycatchers do, whisking off at regular intervals in acrobatic flight after insect prey. I got about two minutes view of it perched on the water butt before it flew off. It  re-appeared on the butt after a few minutes and we got another two minute eyeful before it launched itself off into the bushes and was gone from view. It made one more visit to the favoured water butt before the steadily increasing wind strength and now returning rain persuaded it to change tactics and it retreated to ground level where it was generally invisible apart from occasional sorties into a buddleia bush behind the house. The rain and wind were now impossible to ignore and the sky was ominously and solidly grey and looked unlikely to yield to better weather. Grim indeed.

Whilst looking at the flycatcher it became apparent from the general gossip around us that most birders considered this individual to be an Acadian Flycatcher which was good news for me and Peter as it was a new species for both of us as well as for Britain. It certainly looked nothing like the Alder Flycatcher I had seen in Cornwall, which was much duller brown and did not have such a prominent eye ring. A minority considered it might be a Yellow bellied Flycatcher but I do not think so. Someone almost unbelievably managed to collect some droppings from the flycatcher which have been sent for DNA analysis. So I imagine fairly soon we may have confirmation of exactly what species of Empidonax flycatcher it is. 

I was becoming thoroughly soaked down the windward side of my supposed waterproof clothing and life was becoming increasingly uncomfortable but I stubbornly refused to bow to the elements. Peter was sensibly ever more keen to get back to the sanctuary of the car. 'Just one more view Peter and then we can go'. In fact we got several subsequent fleeting views of the flycatcher but it looked unlikely that it would come back to the water butt where earlier the best and most prolonged views of it had been.

The crowd of birders had by now increased considerably to around two hundred and fifty, and with the continued absence of prolonged views of the flycatcher it was becoming a bit chaotic as birders were rushing to wherever it  was possible to get a brief view of the flycatcher in the restricted viewing conditions of the garden surrounding the bungalow.

The owners of the bungalow, thankfully sympathetic to birders,  returned. The lady of the house commenced taking images of the assembled birders on her phone from her living room window. We waved to her and she waved back. Everyone joining in the spirit of this unique event. I was now feeling very cold as well as wet. Peter asked one more time, 'Shall we go?' I bowed to the inevitable, relented and we returned to the car. Never was I so glad to get out of the wind and wet, get back into the dry and get the heater working. We had been standing for over two hours in a combination of wind and rain that hammered into us mercilessly as there was absolutely no shelter or hiding place from the aforesaid wind and rain coming relentlessly across the flat open expanses of shingle that make up this strange headland jutting out into  English Channel.

Stoic but happy twitchers in the wind and wet at Dungeness
We drove back down the road past the late Derek Jarman's former home and garden, now a place of pilgrimage to admirers of his theatrical abilities and fame. The narrow gauge railway train passed in a cloud of wind blown smoke and trailing empty carriages, behind the house and out across the shingle, its mournful whistle emphasising the inherent loneliness of the barren stony wastes that it traversed. The line of parked cars belonging to birders now stretched almost as far as one could see along the road with yet others still arriving. 

Derek Jarman's cottage and garden on a better day at Dungeness
Twitchers cars lining the road. Normally this road would be empty of cars
We left, rejoicing in our luck and at having seen this major rarity so well. Many birders that had arrived after us had to wait a long time to see it and then when they did only got the briefest of flight views.

We were tired and both of us were hungry, neither of us having eaten anything since the morning. It was now three thirty in the afternoon. We found a nice cafe in nearby New Romney and a quick meal and cup of tea put us in good spirits before heading north, now thankfully in sunshine and much more pleasant driving conditions. After dropping off Peter I was home by eight that evening. This was a day that I will remember for quite some time.

PS My friend Chris managed to see the flycatcher later in the afternoon. The flycatcher was last seen on Tuesday flying to a nearby gorse clump at around seven in the evening where it was lost to view. Despite many birders turning up at first light on Wednesday, there was no sign of the flycatcher and it was never seen again. Some speculated that weakened by its long and perilous journey it may have died in the night, others that the night was clear and starry and it may have moved on. We will never know.


  1. Great story Ewan. As you can imagine Matt was a bit glum after missing this one!!

    1. Hi Bob
      Matt should hopefully get the Thick billed Warbler on Shetland.If he does that will be some compensation