Sunday 18 October 2020

Hold that Taiga! 15th October 2020

On Tuesday I had just returned from Pennington Marshes in mid afternoon when I received a text from Les asking if I 'needed' Taiga Flycatcher. The answer was an unequivocal yes. It could hardly have been anything else as only three have ever been seen before in Britain, the last one being 11 years ago from the 22nd-29th September 2009 on Fetlar, Shetland and the last mainland record was 6 years prior to that when one was seen at Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire on the 26th-29th April 2003 and another on Mainland, Shetland  on the 12th-15th October of the same year.

Taiga Flycatchers were only 'split' from Red breasted Flycatcher in 2004.It is closely similar to the Red breasted Flycatcher which occurs in Britain on autumn migration and in varying numbers each year.It is probably under recorded due to its close similarity to the Red breasted Flycatcher but for now it remains a major rarity in Britain. They breed in Siberia from the Urals eastwards to Sakhalin and Kamchatka then south as far as northern Mongolia and Amurland. They migrate to spend the winter in northwest India, extending eastwards to southern China and south to the Malay Peninsula.

I called Les to find out  more details and was told a Red breasted Flycatcher had been found at a place called The Leas at Trow Quarry which is on the northeast coast of England at South Shields in Northumberland. Photos taken of the bird resulted in it being re-identified as the much rarer but very similar Taiga Flycatcher. Many birders would want to see it as it was easily accessible on the mainland and did not require a difficult journey to an offshire island location such as Shetland.

Les told me he was determined to get to the quarry before first light tomorrow and if I wanted to come I could meet him and Mark at our customary rendezvous point when going north, which is at Leicester North Services, at 2am tomorrow morning and he would drive us to South Shields.

I was desperately short of sleep and really was looking forward to a lie in on Wednesday but this manic year of rare birds arriving in Britain had just delivered another huge mega and it could not be ignored. I would just have to marshal my physical resources and keep going for another day.

I confirmed to Les that I would make the rendezvous at 2am which gave me just enough time to get everything together and then get two hours sleep before I had to rise and drive to Leicester. 

As is now inevitable when driving Britain's roads at night I encountered a road closure on the way but the diversion this time was only minor and, somewhat tired and irritable I arrived at the services and parked to await the arrival of Les. He drove in fifteen minutes later  grumbling about also having to cope with road closures but now here we were all together and in ten minutes we set off for the north 

I took the back seat and slept fitfully while Mark and Les talked politics. I awoke as we drove through heavy rain and my heart sank. Already tired, it now looked like I was in for a good soaking at South Shields whilst standing and waiting to see if a tiny flycatcher would grant us an audience but this is what you do when twitching. You just have to get on with it and if the weather does not co-operate, too bad. The one positive note was that the bird would hardly be likely to migrate in this foul weather so hopefully it would still be there when dawn arrived. That was the theory but as everyone who twitches knows there is always an exception to the rule. Cue the inevitable and customary anxiety!

We made a stop at some services on the motorway for a reviving coffee and found we were well ahead of schedule, due to Les's safety first policy when twitching, and would arrive at South Shields well before dawn. Rather than sit or sleep in the cramped confines of the car, we opted to remain and relax in the deserted services, chatting away and then, surprisingly, were joined by Phil who I had seen only yesterday at the phalaropes in Hampshire and was now driving north on his own to see the flycatcher. We sat and chatted some more and then parted to set off into the night once more.

An hour and a half later we were at South Shields and parked up in a layby on the coast road, opposite a pub called The Bamburgh, to await the dawn. I realised that the nearby and currently invisible Trow Quarry was where I had come some years ago and failed to see another mega, an Eastern Crowned Warbler, missing it by one day. Let's hope I would be more successful this time. I was reasonably confident the flycatcher would be here as all night it had been very wet and cloudy.I was also heartened to see that the weather forecast predicted the rain would clear by dawn and the day would be sunny from noon onwards.

Slowly the sky lightened and we could see that there was a huge grassed area to our left and beyond it dropped a considerable way down to another smaller but still extensive grassy area that ran to the seashore. This was where the long defunct Trow Quarry was situated.

Getting our gear together we joined other birders and set off across the grass and followed a treacherous track that ran down one side of the quarry face to bring us to the bottom where we joined a semi circle of birders looking at the scrub and small trees growing in the shelter of the rock face. This, according to local birders, was where the Taiga Flycatcher had been seen yesterday.

Looking down on birders scanning the rock face
for the Taiga Flycatcher

It was cold and a biting east wind blew on our backs from the sea as we huddled into our warm clothing.It was still too dull to see anything in the trees and bushes but slowly as the light improved we saw movements. Tiny birds, Goldcrests, that moved through the twigs and leaves apace, obviously just arrived from the North Sea behind us. Migrant Bramblings, called their harsh wheeze as they too made  landfall but little else was to be seen or heard.

For maybe forty five minutes we stood, looking expectantly at the trees and bushes under the rock face.Our number had now swelled to around fifty but nothing moved in front of us. Then to my left came a definite movement in the crowd and soon everyone was running, madly following everyone else. The flycatcher was round the corner where the rock face continued eastwards.

Careful not to trip on the rough grass and uneven ground I made my way as best I could for several hundred metres to join those already looking at the flycatcher. Someone shouted out directions and I soon found it, perched very low at the base of the rock face on some dead spikes of willowherb.It had its back to me and all I could see was a grey brown head and similar coloured upperparts, a pale underbody and a black and white tail. It was there for a minute before flying high up the rock face and, carried by the wind, disappeared at speed over the top.

This was not good. I had seen it, true, but not for long and not nearly well enough to feel satisfied. Everyone walked along a pathway until we could ascend to the top of the plateau and walk back along the top searching for the flycatcher. It was rough grassland with some wind blasted  hawthorns but there was no sign of it, just an alarmed male European Stonechat and an exhausted migrant Redwing, that flew up from the long grass.

We descended to where the flycatcher had first been seen and not long afterwards it was re-found nearby and the tiny bird proceeded to work its way up and down the length of the rock face, usually remaining at its base, sometimes visible but often not, due to the concealing vegetation. Long spells occurred where no one knew where it was but eventually it would be found somewhere along the rock face, perched low  down on the remaining vegetation. Occasionally it would fly high up onto the rock face and perch there but soon would descend to a much lower level and use the dead vegetation as perches to hunt insects.

Images c Mark

Its plumage was markedly dull in comparison to a Red breasted Flycatcher although the same in overall pattern. The main difference that I could see was its all black bill and tail coverts which were blacker than the tail. Its breast to my eyes did not show the classic grey wash contrasting with the white throat of a Red breasted Flycatcher and the fringes to its tertials were hardly pure white but seemed to have a buff hue.

It was very small and when it flew the spread tail showed extensive white flashes either side of the all black central tail feathers. It would perch on dead vegetation or jutting rocks on the rockface and then fly out to catch insects in the air or sometimes from the rockface itself, swooping and diving at great speed. When it perched it had the habit of flicking its wings and moving its tail upwards at an angle as it fidgeted with nervous energy.

Images c Mark

It was hard to follow at times as its dull plumage merged with the grey hues of the rock face and it appeared so small against the rock and was so fast in flight.Everyone religiously followed as it flew from one spot to another, back and fore we went along  the length of the rockface but eventually it seemed to settle in a more sheltered corner. The sun, earlier than predicted, emerged around 1030am, shining directly into our eyes which made it even more difficult to locate and follow the flycatcher on its fast flicking flights up and across the rock face but by now we had seen it very well and for extended periods, so all of us felt we had done it justice.

We left it with its growing attendant band of admirers and apart from an unsuccessful look nearby for an Olive backed Pipit that was our day completed. Another successful twitch under our belts in this quite exceptional year that  I will remember not only for the human disaster of a pandemic virus but just as much for the almost constant arrival of rare birds from both east and west this autumn.

There were some who queried the identification due to this individual not showing all the classic features of a Taiga Flycatcher but someone managed to record its call which is diagnostically different from a Red Breasted Flycatcher and this confirmed it was a Taiga Flycatcher. Just to be on the safe side some faeces were  also collected and sent off for mitochondrial DNA anlaysis.

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